Plutarch on Alexander's Youth


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1. It is the life of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, who overthrew Pompey, that I am writing in this book, and the multitude of the deeds to be treated is so great that I shall make no other preface than to entreat my readers, in case I do not tell of all the famous actions of these men, nor even speak exhaustively at all in each particular case, but in epitome for the most part, not to complain.
For it is
not Histories, but Lives that I am writing; and in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles where thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities. Accordingly, just as painters get the likenesses in their portraits from the face and the expression of the eyes, wherein the character shows itself, but make very little account of the other parts of the body, so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men, and by means of these to portray the life of each, leaving to others the description of their great contests.
2. On his father’s side Alexander was descended from Heracles1 through Caranus. On his mother’s he was a descendent of Aeacus through Neoptolemus. This is beyond doubt.

Philip is said to have been initiated into the mysteries at Samothrace with Olympias, when he was still a young man. He fell in love with her when she was an orphan and proposed marriage to her, after persuading her brother, Arymbas, to consent.
The bride, on the night before they slept together in their bedroom, thought that there was a peal of thunder and that a thunderbolt fell on her womb. From the blow much fire sprung up, and then it broke into flames that went everywhere, before being extinguished. Philip, at a later time, after his marriage, dreamt that he was putting a seal on his wife’s womb. In his opinion, the carving on the seal had the image of a lion.
When the other seers considered the vision, they thought that Philip needed to keep as close an eye as possible on his marriage relations. Aristander of Telmessus said that the woman was pregnant, because a seal is not used on empty things, and that she was carrying a child who was bold in spirit and had a lion-like nature.
In addition, a snake was seen stretched out next to Olympias’ body as she slept. And they say that this, more than anything else, reduced Philip’s love and friendliness towards his wife, and that he no longer slept with his wife, either because he feared some spells and enchantments might be used against him by his wife or because he was avoiding association with her, as she was the partner of a superior being.

There is another story about these things. All the women in this place were addicted to the Orphic rites and the orgies which surrounded Dionysus from very ancient times. They were called Klodones and Mimallones. They do many things which are the same as the Edonian women and the Thracian women around Mount Haemus. From this it would seem that the word ‘threskeuein’ came to refer to extravagant and superstitious ceremonies. Olympias, rather more than other women, experienced possession by divine spirits, and expressed divine inspiration in a wilder fashion. She used to bring for those at the revels large, tame serpents, which often would lift their heads out of ivy and mystic baskets and, winding themselves around the wands and garlands of the women, terrify the men.
3. After this vision, Philip sent Chaeron of Megalopolis to Delphi. They say that he brought back an oracle from the god which told him to sacrifice to Ammon and honour this god very highly. He would, however, lose the eye which he had put to the chink in the door when he had seen the god in the form of a snake sharing the bed with his wife. Olympias, as Eratosthenes says, sent Alexander on his expedition, and told him about the secret surrounding his conception, and told him to be proud of his birth. Others say that she rejected the idea and said ‘Alexander must stop slandering me to Hera.

And so, Alexander was born early in the month of Hecatombaeon, which the Macedonians call Loüs, on the sixth day. This was the day when the temple of Ephesian Artemis was burnt. Hegesias the Magneian made a statement about this which would have been able to extinguish the fire with its coldness. For he said that it was not surprising that the temple of Artemis was burned down as the goddess was at work delivering Alexander. All the Magi who were at Ephesus at that time thought that the disaster of the temple was a symptom of another disaster. They ran about, beating their faces and shouting out that on that day a curse and a great disaster for Asia had been born. Philip, on the other hand, had just taken Potidaea. Three messages came to him at the same time. The first, that the Illyrians had been conquered in a great battle by Parmenio; the second that his race-horse had won a victory at the Olympic Games, and the third was about the birth of Alexander. He was delighted by these things, as you would expect. The seers raised his spirits even higher still when they said that a son born at the time of three victories would be unconquerable.
4. The statues by Lysippus are the best likeness of Alexander’s appearance. Alexander himself thought that only he was worthy to sculpt him. For those things which many of his successors and friends later used to imitate – the poise of his neck, which was bent a little to the left and the wetness of his eyes – this craftsman observed accurately. The painter Apelles when painting him as wielding a thunder-bolt, did not recall his complexion, but made him too dark and swarthy. He was fair, they say. This fairness became a ruddiness especially around his chest and face. His skin smelt very pleasant and a fragrance came from his mouth and all his flesh, so that his clothes were filled with it. This I have read in the Memoirs of Aristoxenus.
Perhaps the cause of this was the temperament of his body which was very warm and full of fire. For, in the opinion of Theophrastus, the fragrance comes about when the moist humours are in contact with heat. For this reason, the dry and parched regions of the world produce the most and best spices. For the sun dries the moisture that, like a material of rottenness, fills their bodies. The warmth of his body, it seems, made Alexander keen on drink and high-spirited

Whilst he was still a child, his self-restraint became clear: although he was impetuous and violent in other respects, the pleasures of the body moved him little, and he made contact with such things with great moderation. Love of honour made him think seriously and in a lofty way, beyond what might have been expected at his age. He did not like all forms of fame and from any quarter, as Philip did. Philip had shown off as a sophist with his cleverness in argument and had his chariot victories at the Olympic Games engraved on coins. When, however, those around him asked if he was willing to compete in the foot-race at the Olympics – for he was a good runner – he said, ‘If kings are intending to compete, yes.’ Alexander appears to have had a negative attitude to the whole class of athletes. Although he set up many competitions, not only for tragic poets and flute-players and lyre-players, but also for rhapsodes and for all types of hunting and fighting with staves, he did not award prizes for boxing or the pancratium with any enthusiasm.
5. When ambassadors came from the Persian king while Philip was away, Alexander entertained them and spent time with them and impressed them with his friendliness. He asked no childish or trivial questions but wanted to know about the length of roads in Persia and what the journey from the coast into the interior was like, and also what sort of warrior the king was and how courageous and powerful the Persians were, with the result that they were astonished and considered that Philip’s reputation for cleverness was as nothing compared to Alexander's eagerness to achieve great things.
At any rate, whenever it was announced that Philip had taken a famous city or achieved a notable victory in battle, Alexander was not very happy to hear it* but said to his friends, “Boys, my father will capture everything first. He will leave no great and brilliant deed for me to achieve with your help.” For he did not seek pleasure or wealth but courage and glory, and he thought that the more he received from his father the less he would be able to achieve for himself. For this reason, as he considered that the opportunities for success were being used up by his father as he became more successful, he wanted to inherit from him not money and luxury and pleasures, but rather contests and wars and ambitions.

As you might expect, there were many nurses and tutors and teachers appointed to look after him, and in charge of them all was Leonidas, a man of austere character and a relative of Olympias. He accepted the title of tutor as it was a noble and splendid occupation, but because of his reputation and his family relationship he was called by others the foster father and guide of Alexander. The man who took on the role and title of tutor was Lysimachus, an Acarnanian by birth, not a refined person, but because he called himself Phoenix, and Alexander Achilles, and Philip Peleus, he was loved and held the second place.
6 Philoneicus the Thessalian brought Boucephalas to sell to Philip for 13 talents. They all went down to the plain to inspect the horse, and he appeared to be difficult and completely unmanageable, not allowing anyone to ride him or responding to the voice of any of Philip’s men, but rearing at all of them. Philip was annoyed and ordered them to take the horse away as it was completely wild and untrained. Alexander was there and said, “What a horse they are losing when they cannot handle him through lack of skill and patience.” At first Philip kept quiet, but where Alexander said the same thing many times and was in great distress, he said, “Do you find fault with your elders because you know more than they do or are better able to handle a horse?” Alexander replied, “I could certainly manage this horse better than anyone else.” “And if you don't, what penalty should you pay for your recklessness?” Straightaway Alexander said, “By Zeus, I will pay the price of the horse.” This made everybody laugh, and then father and son made an agreement about the penalty. At once Alexander ran up to the horse and, taking the reins, turned him towards the sun, as he had noticed that the horse was disturbed by seeing his own shadow falling in front of him and dancing around. Then he calmed the horse a little by doing this and stroked it, and when he saw that it was full of spirit and energy he took off his cloak quietly, leapt up and seated himself safely. Then gently directing the bit with the reins without striking the horse or tearing his mouth, Alexander held the horse back. When he saw that the horse had stopped misbehaving and was eager for a run, he spoke more boldly, kicked with his heels and gave the horse his head. At first those with Philip were terrified and kept quiet. But when Alexander came back proud and overjoyed, everyone there cried out and his father is said to have cried with joy; when the boy had dismounted he kissed him on his head and said, “My child, you must seek a kingdom equal to yourself; Macedonia is not big enough for you.”
7 Seeing that his son's nature was resolute and that he did not like to be forced to do things but was easily convinced by argument to do the right thing, Philip tried rather to persuade him to order him. Because he did not entirely trust the direction and education of the boy to the teachers of music and other studies, as this was a matter of greater importance and as Sophocles says, ‘a task requiring many bits and rudders’, he sent for the most well-known philosopher, Aristotle, and paid him a fee which was noble and appropriate. Some time before, Philip had destroyed the city of Stageira, of which Aristotle was a citizen; he now repopulated it again and brought back those of the citizens who were in exile or who had been enslaved.

He gave them the sanctuary of the nymphs at Mieza as a school, where to this day the locals point out the stone seats and shady walks of Aristotle. Alexander appears to have studied not only Aristotle's ethical and political philosophy but also his secret and deeper doctrines, the so-called 'acroamatic' and 'epoptic' teachings which philosophers do not share with many people. For when Alexander had just crossed into Asia and learnt that Aristotle had published an account of these matters in a book, he boldly wrote a letter to him on behalf of philosophy, of which this is a copy: "Alexander sends greetings to Aristotle. In publishing an account of your private doctrines you have not acted properly; what will distinguish me from other men* if the private doctrines in which you trained me will be available to everybody? I would prefer to be distinguished from other people through my understanding of what is best them through my power. Farewell."
8 In my opinion, Aristotle was more responsible than anyone else for Alexander's interest in healing. Not only was Alexander interested in theory but he also offered help to friends when they were ill and he suggested remedies and changes to the way they looked, as can be seen in his letters. He was naturally interested in learning and was a keen reader. He considered and called the Iliad a manual of military skill, and he took with him a copy corrected by Aristotle which was called the Iliad of the casket; he always kept it by him under his pillow together with a dagger, as Onesicritus relates. When he could not get hold of other books on his campaign into Persia, he ordered Harpalus to send some. He received from him the books of Philistus together with many tragedies by Euripides and Sophocles and Aeschylus, and also the dithyrambs of Telestus and Philoxenus. He admired Aristotle from the beginning and loved him not less, as he himself said, than his father, as he gained the gift of life from his father, but from Aristotle he had learnt how to live nobly. In later years he was more suspicious of Aristotle, not that he did him any harm but his friendliness towards him was less warm, which was proof of an estrangement between them. However his natural interest and enthusiasm for philosophy which he demonstrated since childhood did not leave him as he grew older as can be shown by his respect for Anaxarchus and the 50 talents he gave Xenocrates and his close association with Dandamis and Calanus.
9 When Philip was making an expedition against the people of Byzantium, Alexander, aged 16, was left in charge of affairs in Macedonia and was keeper of the king's seal. When the Maedi revolted, he overcame them; after capturing their city he drove out the barbarians and settled a mixed population there and renamed the city Alexandropolis. He was present at and took part in the battle against the Greeks at Chaeroneia, and it is said that he led the charge against the Sacred Band of the Thebans. Still even in my time an ancient oak tree is pointed out as Alexander's tree next to the River Cephisus where he pitched his tent at the time of the battle; the general burying place of the Macedonians is close by.

Because of this, as one might expect, Philip was very fond indeed of his son and was even delighted when he heard the Macedonians calling Alexander their king, and Philip their general. But the disturbances in the Royal household, brought about by his marriages and his love affairs, caused problems in his kingdom very similar to those in the women's quarters of the palace and resulted in great quarrels between Alexander and his father, which the bad temper of Olympias, an envious and sullen woman, made still worse, as she encouraged the young man. The most obvious quarrel was brought about by Attalus at the time of Philip's marriage to Cleopatra; Philip fell in love with a young girl, even though he was too old for her. Attalus was her uncle and when he was drunk at a banquet he called on the Macedonians to ask the gods for a legitimate inheritor of the kingdom from Philip and Cleopatra. Stung by this remark Alexander said, "Do I appear to you to be a bastard, you fool?" And he threw a cup at him. Philip drew his sword and stood up to face Alexander, but fortunately for both of them because of his anger and the wine he tripped and fell over. Alexander insulted him and said, "Look at this man, my friends, who is preparing to cross to Asia from Europe, who comes a cropper crossing from one couch to another." After this drunken brawl he took Olympias and put her in Epirus, while he spent time amongst the Illyrians.
Meanwhile Demaratus the Corinthian, who was a friend of the family and prepared to speak his mind, went to Philip. After they greeted each other, when Philip asked how the Greeks were agreeing with each other, Demaratus replied, "It is certainly very appropriate, Philip, to be worried about Greece, when you have filled your own house with such strife and difficulties." Philip realised he was right, and sent for Alexander and brought him home with Demaratus’ help.
10 [Plutarch describes another conflict between Philip and Alexander over the succession, as a result of which Philip banished Alexander's companions Harpalus, Nearchus, Erigyius and Ptolemy, then he adds:]

And so when Pausanias, who had been
outrageously dealt with at the instance of Attalus and Cleopatra and could get no justice at Philip's hands, slew Philip, most of the blame devolved upon Olympias, on the ground that she had added her exhortations to the young man's anger and incited him to the deed; but a certain amount of accusation attached itself to Alexander also. For it is said that when Pausanias, after the outrage that he had suffered, met Alexander, and bewailed his fate, Alexander recited to him the iambic verse of the Medeia:

The giver of the bride, the bridegroom, and the bride.’ 

However, he did seek out the participants in the plot and punished them, and was angry with Olympias for her savage treatment of Cleopatra during his absence.