Chapter 6

King of the world: Alexander and Persia

The historian Appian, a contemporary of Arrian, reports a conversation between the Roman general, Scipio Africanus, and his tutor, the Greek historian Polybius, which took place outside Carthage in 146 BCE as that city was being sacked by the Roman army. Appian says that Polybius recorded the conversation as he heard it. Scipio, watching the destruction of the ancient city, was drawn to reflect on

the inevitability that cities, nations and empires would be overthrown: such a fate had befallen Troy, a once fortunate city, and had befallen the Assyrians, the Medes and the Persians, whose empire had been greatest of all, and most recently the glittering empire of the Macedonians.

He went on to quote lines from the Iliad, where the Trojan prince Hector predicts the fall of Troy, and he explained to Polybius that he was thinking of the future time when Rome itself would fall.

The idea that different nations followed each other in ruling over large parts of the world, and in particular over Asia, was a well established theme in historiography by the time the surviving Alexander historians were writing. At the start of the last book of hisAnabasis of Alexander, Arrian reports the unlikely suggestion that Alexander was planning to circumnavigate Africa and attack Carthage from the west, and adds that in Alexander’s view the Medes and Persians had no right to the title ‘Great King’ as they had only controlled the smallest part of Asia. This is probably a reflection of Arrian’s own view rather than Alexander’s, but Herodotus’ account of the rise of the Persian empire, written a century before the reign of Alexander, presented the Persians as successor to the power of the Medes. Although ‘rule over Asia’ was not a precisely defined idea, it was what Alexander could expect to gain by defeating Darius, which he duly did for the second and final time at Gaugamela, near the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq, on 1 October 331.

‘King of the World’

We know the precise date of the battle of Gaugamela, and about some of the surrounding events, from a Babylonian astronomical diary like the example we met earlier in this book, noting Alexander’s death. The Gaugamela diary, which covers the sixth and seventh months of the Babylonian year, equivalent to 8 September to 6 November 331, as all such diaries do, records each night’s observations, and, if anything significant occurred, what rituals were carried out in response: on 25 September a dog was burned, possibly in response to a bolt of lightning (the tablet is broken at this point). At the end of the sixth month, Ulūlu, the tablet indicates how much barley, dates, mustard, cress, sesame, and wool could be bought in the market for a silver shekel; then which planets were in which constellations; and the height of the Euphrates. These data are followed by reports of other events, including an outbreak of panic in the camp of Darius on 18 September; the arrival of the Macedonian army at the battlefield; and the battle itself, during which Darius’ troops, having been defeated, abandoned the king in their flight. This detail is of interest because it helps to resolve a disagreement amongst the Alexander historians: while Diodorus and Curtius claim that Darius held firm until after his troops began to flee, Plutarch and Arrian present Darius as the first to run. It is a case where the normally more reliable Arrian turns out probably to be incorrect.

The scribe who wrote out the tablet refers to Darius as ‘the King’, but to Alexander as ‘King of the World’. There is some uncertainty about this translation, but similar titles are used to refer to Alexander in the surviving historians. Since the division of the world into continents was a creation of Greek geographers, Babylonians had no distinct concept of ‘Asia’, and ‘King of the World’ may have been a Babylonian way of rendering the term ‘King of Asia’. Plutarch takes Alexander’s victory at Gaugamela as the climax of his campaign, stating ‘With the battle turning out this way, the rule of the Persians was considered to be completely overthrown, and Alexander, proclaimed as King of Asia, sacrificed to the gods on a grand scale and rewarded his friends with wealth, estates, and provinces.’ This would be the situation the Babylonian scribe was responding to in his choice of title.

The title ‘King of the World’ first appears in the narrative of Alexander’s campaigns in the story of the Gordian knot. At Gordium, the ancient capital of Phrygia, Alexander was shown a cart connected to a yoke by a complex knot, and was told that whoever could undo the knot would become either ‘Ruler of Asia’ (according to Arrian and Curtius) or ‘King of the World’ (according to Plutarch). Two versions of Alexander’s response to this are reported—the more popular was that he simply cut the knot with his sword, but the alternative was that he pulled out a peg that held the knot together. In either case he was recognized as having fulfilled the prophecy. The versions of Alexander’s consultation of the oracle at Siwa found in Plutarch, Diodorus, and Curtius (but not Arrian) also have Alexander being told that he will rule the world. There is no suggestion in these accounts that Alexander misunderstood the meaning of the oracle, or that it was unreliable. The responses can be understood as foretelling the outcome of Alexander’s meeting with Darius, at Gaugamela, which followed his departure from Egypt.


Defeated at Gaugamela, Darius III fled eastwards, and Alexander was able to lead his army south through Mesopotamia towards Persia. The first major city he came to was Babylon, and we will consider his relationship with that city later. From there he moved on to Susa, like Babylon an Achaemenid royal capital. Two of the Alexander historians report an odd story about Alexander’s visit to the palace at Susa, which might be concealing an important event in Alexander’s career. According to Diodorus and Curtius, Alexander went on a tour of the palace, and when he reached the throne room he sat on the royal throne. As he was not tall, Alexander’s feet would not reach the floor in front of the throne, and so a page brought over a low table to serve as a footstool. At this one of the palace eunuchs began to wail, and eventually explained that this was the table at which Darius had formerly eaten his meals: the eunuch could not keep silent seeing this transformation of Darius’ fortune. Alexander at first wanted the table removed, but his friend Philotas told him to treat the situation as an omen acknowledging Alexander’s triumph.

What does the story tell us? It is unlikely to be true. Depictions of Achaemenid kings on their thrones generally show them with a footstool, and everything we know about ‘the King’s table’ suggests that any table at which Darius dined would be unsuitable to act as a footstool. It is also unlikely that Alexander would have shown the kind of insensitivity the story implies. One possible interpretation of the episode is that it is a confused description of Alexander being enthroned and crowned as Great King. Plutarch, in his essay on The Fortune of Alexander, mentions an aged Greek called Demeratus weeping with happiness at the sight of Alexander sitting on the throne of Darius at Susa, and Susa was the usual place where Achaemenid kings were crowned. Plutarch, in his Life of Artaxerxes, describes his subject, Artaxerxes II, undergoing a different succession ritual, which took place at Pasargadae, but it is clear that Achaemenid kings performed different rituals in different places. The Alexander historians may have been uncomfortable describing Alexander willingly taking part in an Achaemenid ceremony, and thus retold the events as an omen-story, but we should not assume that Alexander shared their scruples.

This raises the question of what Alexander’s ultimate aims were. Some historians have described Alexander as ‘the last of the Achaemenids’, suggesting that he saw himself as the successor to Darius III. On this view Alexander was planning to move the centre of his kingdom from Macedonia to the Achaemenid centres at Susa and Babylon. Associated with the move are his adoption of Persian dress and Persian court protocol, which are described as disturbing to his Macedonian companions. The alternative view would see these practices as necessary for the administration of the eastern parts of Alexander’s empire, and would suggest that, had he lived longer, Alexander would have turned his attention westwards, and probably returned to Macedon.

To find our way through this uncertainty we have to start by thinking about the intended readers of the surviving narratives of Alexander’s campaign. For the Roman readers of the histories of Alexander, the Persians were still the enemy. In place of the Achaemenid kings, the Romans faced the Parthian empire just across the Euphrates. Several Roman commanders had led expeditions across that river to take on the Parthians, with mixed results. Arrian had the emperor Hadrian in mind as a reader of his history, and Hadrian had campaigned with his predecessor Trajan in Armenia and Mesopotamia, and then, once he had become emperor, had withdrawn from the territories east of the Euphrates. Arrian tries to set Alexander up as a figure worthy of emulation by his Roman readers: he therefore plays down as far as possible any suggestions that Alexander might willingly have set himself up as Great King. But as we have seen, there is good reason to suppose that Macedonian court practices had always owed something to Persian models. Persian kingship will have appeared far less outlandish to Alexander and his Macedonians than it would have done to the Romans who read about him in the surviving accounts.

The burning of Persepolis

Alexander understood the importance of gestures. He adopted Achaemenid protocols where it helped him maintain his authority, but his Achaemenid predecessors were prepared on occasions to demonstrate their power by destructive acts. One of the most notorious of Alexander’s actions on his campaign was the burning of the palace of Persepolis. The palace had been built by Darius and Xerxes, the kings who had led armies into Greece, and the more popular story recorded in the surviving sources is that it was burnt down after a drunken party at which an Athenian courtesan, Thais, encouraged Alexander to take revenge for the destruction of Athens by Xerxes by destroying the palace that he had built. Versions of this story are told in all of the surviving accounts except that of Arrian, who reports that Alexander had the palace deliberately destroyed—an action Arrian himself appears not to have approved of. The material evidence tends to support Arrian’s more sober view, and indicates that it was the contents of the palace as much as the building that were targeted (although the gold and silver were carried away first). The evidence of burning on the surviving stonework suggests that the furnishings had been piled up and set on fire.

Why Alexander should want to destroy Persepolis when he had done no damage to the other royal centres, Susa and Babylon, has puzzled scholars. It was not an act that would endear him to his new subjects, the Persians. The most likely explanation is that this was indeed a symbolic revenge for Xerxes’ destruction of Athens. This was part of the justification for the participation of the Greek cities in the campaign, and it would have been difficult for Alexander to ignore it. He could rule his empire from the other royal centres, and did not need Persepolis. Later Persian tradition magnified the impact of the burning, claiming that along with the palace Alexander had destroyed the texts of ancient Zoroastrian religious works, but this is not plausible.

Dressing as a Persian

For the Alexander historians, his campaign in Iran led to a relentless decline in Alexander’s character, as he became increasingly drawn into ‘eastern’ forms of behaviour. They describe how he began to adopt Persian (or Median) forms of dress and court practices, including the mutilation of his opponents, and requiring his friends to prostrate themselves before him. At the same time they picture him becoming increasingly tyrannical: former friends were executed on trumped-up charges or murdered in violent rages. Modern scholars, while modifying elements of this narrative of corruption and decline, have tended to accept it as largely true. This is a mistake. Alexander’s decline and fall was held up by moralists as the clearest example of seduction and corruption by the east. This reading of his life became the pattern for biographers and historians to use, but it obscures some important facts. Macedonian kings were part of a network that included the western Persian satraps, and many of the practices of satrapal courts, themselves influenced by the court of the Persian king, were adopted or adapted by the Macedonians and the other kings of the Aegean world: Alexander came to ‘the east’ familiar with its practices. We have also seen how in Egypt and Susa Alexander had no difficulty taking on the required role of pharaoh or king. The surviving narratives present Alexander gradually beginning to adopt Persian clothing, and later to ‘experiment’ with formal court protocol, facing the suspicion and even hostility of his fellow Macedonians in the process. But other stories, more favourable to Alexander, found particularly in Plutarch, depict his Macedonian friends sinking into luxurious living while Alexander set them an example of frugality and self-control. Neither version is convincing: both are more concerned with providing moral examples for the reader to emulate or resist than with accurately reporting what actually happened. It was the Roman writers and readers who might pretend to be shocked by Alexander’s adoption of Persian dress in an Iranian climate, not his fellow Macedonians. So we may take it for granted that, from his time in Babylon and Susa onwards, if not earlier, Alexander’s travelling court adopted protocols appropriate to the circumstances, and the king himself fully retained his intellectual capacity.

Court ceremonial

The issue that most concerned the ancient writers, and many modern scholars, is the question of whether Alexander wanted his companions to prostrate themselves in his presence. The Alexander historians all appear to have believed that it was normal practice for Persians to prostrate themselves before the Great King, although this was not the case: only defeated enemies would have been required to do this. To make matters more complicated, the historians also suggested that prostration was a way of acknowledging the divinity of the Persian king. They report stories of how Alexander tried to introduce this practice into the protocol of his court, using social occasions as experiments and claiming that his achievements merited his being worshipped. In the stories, however, opposition to these changes is successfully led by Alexander’s court historian, Callisthenes, and the practice is dropped.

Callisthenes, however, is an implausible leader of the resistance. His history of Alexander’s campaign was notorious for its flattery. It was probably the source for the stories about Alexander’s emulation of his heroic ancestors, Achilles, Heracles, and Perseus, and for depicting Alexander’s expedition as a divinely ordained sequence of triumphs. In his description of Alexander’s march along the south coast of Asia Minor he described the waves of the sea prostrating themselves before Alexander. Nor was Callisthenes himself popular: some stories told about him in the memoirs of Alexander’s companions suggest that he was irritable and boorish at social occasions. But in 327 he was implicated in a plot against Alexander, was arrested, and died while under arrest. In the decades after his death he was reinvented as a principled opponent of Alexander’s adoption of Persian practices and claims to divine descent. It is likely that the stories about the introduction of prostration, and Callisthenes’ objection to it, were invented to make Callisthenes’ death fit an established pattern of stories of philosophers standing up against tyrants. Encounters between philosophers and monarchs were a common subject for Greek writers, starting with Herodotus’ account of the meeting of the Athenian philosopher-statesman Solon and Croesus, king of Lydia in the 6th century. Later history also had an influence: in the period shortly before Curtius, Plutarch, and Arrian were writing, the philosopher Seneca was ordered to commit suicide by the emperor Nero, whose tutor Seneca had been. So by the time the Alexander historians were writing, Callisthenes had become a philosophical martyr, killed for speaking truth to tyrannical power, and the stories about his opposition to prostration were too well known to be ignored. However, they are not compatible with what we know about Persian practices in Alexander’s time and earlier, so they are not the best way of approaching the question of Alexander’s interest in court ceremonial.

What we can say with more confidence is that Alexander appointed men to ceremonial positions that were a normal part of Achaemenid court life. He had a chamberlain or usher, a post known from Herodotus’ description of palace organization under Darius I, where the usher controlled access to the king; his friend Hephaestion was given the title of chiliarch, another position that had been usual in the Persian court. He kept high ranking Persians in his entourage, including the son of his opponent Darius III, and when he distributed estates to his friends after the victory at Gaugamela, Alexander was acting like a Persian king, and effectively establishing these friends as the nobility of his new empire. Later in his reign, the descriptions of banquets that he organised for large numbers of leading Persians and Macedonians appear very similar to those known from earlier documents from Achaemenid Persepolis. The Alexander historians mention these facts in passing, and they do not suggest that they led to difficulties between Alexander and other Macedonians.

Alexander’s queens

Alexander’s marriages demonstrate how he integrated himself into his new kingdom. As we have seen, his father Philip had several wives, and used marriage as a means of maintaining relationships with Macedon’s neighbours. Persian kings bound powerful nobles to themselves in the same way, and especially in cases where the succession was not direct, they would marry former wives or daughters of their predecessors. As part of Alexander’s settlement of the northeastern part of his empire, as we will see, he married Rhoxane, the daughter of a leading Iranian nobleman. On his return from the East in 324 he married two more women: Parysatis, the daughter of Artaxerxes III and sister of Artaxerxes IV, and Stateira, the daughter of Darius III. These marriages connected him to the families of the last two Persian kings, and, had Alexander lived longer, might have produced heirs to Alexander’s throne who were direct descendants of his Achaemenid predecessors. Stateira and Parysatis had been captured by the Macedonians, along with the rest of Darius’ household, in Damascus after the battle of Issus. The Alexander historians report that Alexander treated these captured women, who included Darius’ wife and mother, with great respect. He might have married Stateira rather earlier than he did. All the Alexander historians mention letters sent by Darius to Alexander at times before the battle of Gaugamela, in which Darius offered him marriage to Stateira along with control of the territories west of the Euphrates. Such an agreement would effectively have made Alexander co-ruler with Darius, and presumably would have made it likely that a son of Alexander would inherit the whole empire eventually. Alexander’s military triumph rendered this offer redundant, but a child of Stateira would have been a potential successor to Alexander. It is perhaps for this reason that Rhoxane, anxious to protect the status of her (as yet unborn) child, probably had Stateira and Parysatis killed not long after Alexander’s death.

Discussion of Alexander’s marriages inevitably leads to consideration of his attitude to sex more generally. This was a topic that ancient writers did not ignore, and which has interested modern scholars and influenced modern representations of Alexander. But the questions raised by the ancient writers were rather different from those which have been debated more recently. The Alexander historians do not give a great deal of detail about Alexander’s sexual relationships, although Plutarch mentions briefly that he took as a mistress Barsine, the daughter of one of the leading Persians, Artabazus, and the widow of Darius’ naval commander, Memnon of Rhodes, who was captured along with the rest of Darius’ household after Issus. They are more interested in the issue of Alexander’s self-control and sexual continence, as illustrated by his treatment of Darius’ captured wife and daughters. Such continence was considered to be a particularly masculine virtue by ancient writers, who did not discuss sexuality in terms of sexual orientation. It is modern writers, including the novelists Klaus Mann and Mary Renault, and the film director Oliver Stone, who have drawn attention to the question of whether Alexander had sexual relations with men as well as women, drawing particular attention to Alexander’s friendship with Hephaestion, and to stories about a Persian eunuch called Bagoas. While there is no explicit reference in the surviving texts to such relationships, they would not be inconceivable. There is, however, a danger that suggestions of Alexander’s homosexuality romanticize him as much as references to his sexual continence, if they focus exclusively on consensual sexual relationships. Alexander spent most of his adult life on military campaigns and in a royal court where displays of power were a means of preserving order. Perhaps there should be debate, not on whether Alexander ever had sex with another man, but on whether, or how often, he had sex by force with an unwilling partner, male or female. That kind of behaviour would have been beneath the notice of those who wrote about Alexander in his lifetime, but it has been a feature of all courts and all armies, so it would be truly remarkable if it was not part of Alexander’s experience.

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