2335 years ago Alexander the Great, King Alexander III of Macedon, died having forged an empire that extended from Greece to Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia and northwestern India. He had assumed the throne at the age of eighteen, and by the age of twenty-nine had conquered the Western world. His death at the age of 32 in BC 326 occurred under mysterious circumstances. Through his empire building he disseminated Greek cultural achievements. This brought an end to the Classical Age, and ushered in the Hellenistic Age.
The subject of Alexander’s sexuality is unavoidable. The classical scholar William Woodthorpe Tarn tried to circumvent the subject in the 1930s but the result was at best the work of a denialist. In the Classical and Hellenistic Ages sexuality was far more fluid than in Judaeo-Christian culture, to riot in understatement. Alexander is known for his love of two men, the Persian eunuch Bagoas and his boyhood friend Hephaestion. In the latter half of the Twentieth Century, it was the author Mary Renault who retold these stories and rendered Alexander as a cult hero in her trilogy Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games.There are historians who continue to dismiss the accounts of Alexander’s sexuality as circumstantial and/or gossip, claiming that without solid proof, whatever that is, it is conjecture. This is obtuse, to say the least, and discounts that fact the historian is a detective and not an archaeologist. History is, after all, not a science.
When Alexander conquered Persia, which had been Greece’s master for over two hundred years, he was presented with Bagoas as a peace offering. The Roman historian Quintus Curtius describes him as “a eunuch of remarkable beauty and in the very flower of boyhood, who had been loved by Darius, and was afterwards to be loved by Alexander.” Although Alexander subsequently married the Bactrian princess Roxana, he kept Bagoas with him on his Indian campaigns. Plutarch also writes of Alexander’s “favourite”, Bagoas, and the affection that he would demonstrate for him in public.
It was Alexander’s boyhood friend Hephaestion who was his longest standing attachment. Between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, Alexander and Hephaestion were tutored by Aristotle. Alexander came to revere Homer’s Iliad, which he took on as an inspiration for his empire building. He also saw himself as the hero Achilles, and Hephaestion as Achilles’ lover Patroclus. When Alexander arrived at Troy he dramatized the identification: he sacrificed at the shrine of Achilles, and Hephaestion sacrificed at the shrine of Patroclus. Alexander founded cities at Hephaestion’s bidding. In Persia, Hephaestion was appointed Alexander’s grand vizier.
When Hephaestion died of fever in 324, Alexander was inconsolable. The funeral pyre was a Babylonian ziggurat an eighth of a mile square at the base and two hundred feet high, with tier after tier decorated with wooden statues. It has been conjectured that when Alexander died at the age of 32 it was the result of the years of empire building and the extensive wounds that he had sustained throughout. There was also the lingering grief caused by the death of Hephaestion. It is also possible that he was poisoned.
The Hellenistic age – which literally means the dissemination of Greek culture although it was in fact a fusion of Greco-Asian cultures – lasted until the final years of the Roman Republic. Nevertheless, the influence of Hellenism on the Romans continued because the Greek gods had over time been absorbed into the Roman pantheon. This lasted until the accession of Roman Emperor Constantine I, who ruled from AD 306 to 337 and adopted Christianity as the official imperial religion for reasons of political expediency.
The last stand of Hellenism occurred in the reign of the Emperor Julian, who reigned as Caesar to Constantius II’s Augustus from 355 – 360, and Augustus from 360 – 363. The Greek born Julian had been initiated into the Hellenistic rites, and worked to restore its place as the official religion. From this earned the name Julian the Apostate. Julian, moreover, believed he was Alexander reborn. He died without completing his work at in Sassanid Persia, now Iran, whilst attempting to extend the Eastern wing of the Roman Empire. He was 32. His tutor, the philosopher Libanius, claimed that a Roman Christian soldier had killed him in battle.