Arrian and Plutarch on the Death of Cleitus (328bc)


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Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander 4.8–9
I will now take this opportunity, even though these events occurred a little later, to explain what happened concerning the death of Cleitus, son of Dropides, and the misfortune which affected Alexander.

The Macedonians held one day sacred to Dionysus and Alexander’s sacrificed to Dionysus on that day every year. Various authorities say that on this occasion Alexander was neglectful of Dionysus, but did offer sacrifice to the Dioscuri, an idea which came in to his mind for no particular reason. The drinking after the sacrifice went on for a long time (Alexander had begun to organise his drinking parties in a different and somewhat barbarian manner), but during a drinking bout on that occasion there was some talk about the Dioscuri, in particular that Tyndareus’ role in fathering them had been taken away and the honour given to Zeus instead. Some of those who were there (the sort of men indeed who have always damaged and will never stop damaging the interests of the kings they serve) by way of flattering Alexander suggested that Castor and Pollux could not be compared with Alexander and what Alexander had achieved. In their drinking, others even made comparisons with Heracles; they said that envy always prevented the living from receiving the honour they deserved from their contemporaries.

Cleitus had clearly been annoyed for a long time by the way Alexander had changed his behaviour to a manner more appropriate for barbarians and also by the conversations of those who were flattering him; now, stimulated by the wine, he refused to allow them to insult divine beings or to do a favour for Alexander which in reality was no such thing, by belittling the achievements of the ancient heroes. He said that not even the deeds of Alexander were so great and wonderful as they claimed them to be; he had not achieved by himself, but for the most part they were the achievements of the Macedonians. What he said really hurt Alexander. I do not approve of his words either, as I think it sufficient, at such a drink-sodden party, for each man to stay silent about his own views while avoiding the mistakes made by other flatterers. When some of them, again trying to please Alexander, suggested without any justification that the achievements of Philip were neither great nor wonderful, Cleitus was no longer able to restrain himself, showing respect for what Philip had achieved, but belittling Alexander and all he had done; he was now very drunk and he reproached Alexander a great deal, because after all his life had been saved by Cleitus himself, during the cavalry battle at the Granicus against the Persians.

Moreover, he raised his right hand insolently at Alexander and said, “This is the hand, Alexander, that saved you at that time.’ Alexander could no longer endure Cleitus’ drunkenness and insolence, and leapt up in anger towards him, but was held back by those who were drinking with him. Cleitus did not stop insulting Alexander, and then Alexander shouted out a summons for the royal guard; when no one obeyed him, he said that he was in the same position as Darius, when he was arrested by Bessus and his followers, and all he had left was the title of king. His companions were no longer able to restrain him, and he leapt to his feet; some say that he grabbed a spear from one of his bodyguards and struck Cleitus with this and killed him, while others reported that he used a pike taken from one of the guards. Aristobulus does not record what the reason was for this drinking bout, but he placed the blame on Cleitus alone, since when Alexander was angry and leapt up towards him to kill him, he was taken outside through the doors beyond the wall and the ditch of the citadel, where these events were taking place, by Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, one of the bodyguards; he was not able to resist turning back again, and came face-to-face with Alexander, as he was shouting out ‘Cleitus’, and replied, ‘Here I am, Alexander’; he was then struck with a pike and died.
For my part, I firmly place the blame on Cleitus for his insolence towards his king; I feel pity for Alexander for his misfortune, because at that time he showed that he was controlled by two vices, anger and drunkenness – a sensible man should not be mastered by either of them. But I praise Alexander for what happened afterwards, because straightaway he accepted that he had done something terrible. Some historians claim that Alexander placed the pike against a wall and tried to throw himself on to it, as it was not right for him to continue living after he had killed his friend under the influence of wine. However the majority of writers do not say this, but claimed that he went to his bed and lay there mourning, and calling out Cleitus’ name and also that of his sister, Lanice, daughter of Dropides, who had nursed him: how nobly he had repaid her nursing when he had grown to manhood, as she had seen her children die fighting on his behalf, and her brother killed by his own hand. He would not stop calling himself the killer of his friends, and he refrained from drinking and eating for three days and took no care at all of his physical needs.

In this situation, some of the prophets began talking about the anger of Dionysus, because Alexander had not performed the sacrifice to him. Alexander was persuaded with difficulty by his friends to take some food and to look after his bodily needs, to some extent. He performed the sacrifice to Dionysus, since he was not unwilling to believe that this terrible event was due to the anger of a god rather than to his own depravity. I strongly approve of Alexander’s behaviour at this time, since he did not offer justification for the crime he committed, nor did he become still worse by defending and championing his mistake, but he accepted that, being just a man, he had done wrong.

Some say that Anaxarchus the sophist was summoned and came to Alexander to console him; he found him lying on the bed groaning, and said with a laugh, “Do you not know that the wise men of old placed Justice by the throne of Zeus for this very reason, because whatever is determined by Zeus, is done with Justice? In just the same way, the acts of a great king must be considered just, firstly by the king himself, and then by all other men.” By saying this, he consoled Alexander at that time, but, in my opinion, he caused a great problem for Alexander, far greater than the one he was facing at that time (if in fact he gave this opinion as a philosopher, that there is no need for a king to think seriously about his actions and do what is just, but rather he should consider ‘just’ whatever a king does in whatever way).

There is a strongly held belief that Alexander wanted people to perform obeisance before him, based on the idea that his father was Ammon rather than Philip, and he was already very much taken by the customs of the Persians and the Medes, as shown by his change of clothing and the different way he was attended at court. There were plenty of flatterers prepared to support this, the most important being two sophists in his entourage, Anaxarchus and Agis of Argos, an epic poet.

Plutarch, Life of Alexander 50–51
Not much later occurred the events which led to the death of Cleitus, which at first glance seems much more savage than the incident involving Philotas; yet if we consider both the reason and the moment when it occurred, we see that it was not done deliberately but through some misfortune of the king, whose anger and drunkenness provided a pretext for the evil genius of Cleitus.

This is how it came about. There came some men bringing Greek fruit from the coast. Alexander admired the ripeness and the beauty of this fruit and sent for Cleitus, as he wished to show him what he had been given and to share it with him. Cleitus happened to be offering sacrifice, but he stopped the rite and came: three of the sheep which had been prepared to sacrifice followed him. When the King learnt this, he spoke with the seers Aristander and Cleomantis the Spartan; when they said that this was a bad sign, he ordered a sacrifice to be made as quickly as possible on Cleitus’s behalf. For Alexander himself had seen something strange in his sleep two days before: he dreamt he saw Cleitus sitting with the sons of Parmenio who were dressed in black, and they were all dead.

Cleitus didn’t complete his sacrifice, but came immediately to dinner, although the king had offered a sacrifice to the Dioscuri. Heavy drinking had already started when some songs were sung, composed by a certain Pranichus (or, as some say, Pierio), intended to shame and ridicule some generals who had recently been defeated by the barbarians. The older men there were annoyed and abused the poet and the singer, but Alexander and those sitting with him enjoyed listening to them and told him to carry on. By this time Cleitus was drunk, and being by nature rough in temper and stubborn he became very angry, saying that it was not right that the Macedonians should be insulted in the presence of barbarians and enemies, when they were better than those who were laughing, even though they had had some bad luck. When Alexander claimed that Cleitus was making excuses for himself when he called cowardice misfortune, Cleitus stood up and said, “Yet this cowardice of mine has already saved you, son of a God though you are, when you turned your back on the sword of Spithridates, and you have become so powerful through the blood and wounds of Macedonians that you deny Philip was your father and make yourself the son of Ammon.”

51. Annoyed by this, Alexander said, “You wretch, do you think you can get away with saying that sort of thing about me all the time and splitting the Macedonians into factions?”

“Even now, Alexander, we don’t get away with it,” he said, “since we pay such a high cost for our suffering, and we call happy those who already have died before they saw Macedonians beaten with Persian sticks or having to ask Persians before we approach our king.” Cleitus spoke out boldly like this, and those with Alexander were on their feet and abusing him; the older men tried to quiet things down. Alexander turned to Xenodochus of Cardia and Artemius of Colophon, and said, “Don’t the Greeks seem to you to walk amongst the Macedonians like demigods amongst wild beasts?”

Cleitus would not give up, and told Alexander to say whatever he wanted openly, or not to invite to dinner men who were free and who exercised free speech; he should live with barbarians and slaves who would offer obeisance before his Persian belt and his white tunic.

Alexander could no longer control his anger, but picked up one of the apples on the table and threw it at Cleitus and began to look for his sword; one of his bodyguards, Aristophanes, took it away before he could find it. The rest of them still around him asked him to stop, but he leapt up and shouted out in Macedonian, calling for his armour bearers (this was a sign of great tumult), and he ordered his trumpeter to send a signal and then struck him with his fists when he did not do so straight away. This man was later given much credit as he was responsible for not disturbing the whole camp. When Cleitus would not give up the quarrel, his friends with difficulty thrust him out of the hall. Cleitus tried to enter again through a different door, declaiming very contemptuously and boldly this line of Euripides from his play Andromache: “Alas, how badly things are controlled in Greece!” Then Alexander, taking a spear from one of his guards, came face-to-face with Cleitus as he drew back the curtain in front of the door, and ran him through. He fell with a groan and a bellow, and at once Alexander’s anger vanished. When he returned to his senses and seeing his friends standing around him speechless, he dragged the spear out of the dead body and tried to impale himself in the neck, but was prevented by his bodyguards, who restrained him and carried him by force into his bedroom.