Persianization and Intimidation: Investigating Discord in the Court of Alexander the Great
A subset of Alexandrian scholarship which has garnered long-held fascination does not center upon a success, but rather a failure: that is, the divide in his court which emerged during his Asiatic campaigns. Such a divide, though incited by a number of grievances, was notably influenced by Alexander’s efforts to mimic, assimilate to, and integrate elements of the Persian court and military into his Macedonian empire. Biographers from Plutarch to Green have attempted to unearth Alexander’s objectives with this Persianization, and to varying success: some claim it was a unified empire (Green 1991: 373) while others label it a unified mankind (Tarn 1948: 147). In any case, it may be agreed that Persianization was the means to an end — indeed, an end which Alexander must have thought justified its controversial means; and controversial they were.
In 324 BC tensions erupted with the mutiny at Opis, which was incited when Alexander proposed to recruit ten thousand Persian soldiers to replace those Macedonians who were wounded or elderly (Diodorus, Library 17.109.1-3). One must note that prior to this, six years of Persianizing policy (Collins 2001: 259) had passed without active mutiny. Why, for those six years, did Alexander’s men remain silent despite the aforementioned divide? In examining three episodes of attempted Persianization — the proskynesis, the installation of the office of the Chiliarch, and the Opis mutiny itself — the creation of an atmosphere of intimidation in Alexander’s court will prove to have contributed greatly to the men’s silence, and thus the making of Opis as a singular phenomenon.
An early reaction to Alexander’s Persian policy is illustrated with the proskynesis debacle of 327. Likely in an effort to unify court etiquette for the purpose of smoothly ruling both Persian and Macedonian subjects (Brunt 1965: 210), Alexander attempted to introduce the Persian obeisance, an act of either prostrating oneself at the Great King’s feet or, more likely, performing a courtier’s bow and then blowing him a kiss (Richards 1934: 168). The attempt was made at a banquet, where it was received with apparent aplomb until it came Callisthenes’ turn to perform; with his rebuke he made a lasting enemy of the king (Plutarch, Alexander 54). Later in the year, Callisthenes was wrongly implicated (Brown 1949: 247) in a plot on Alexander’s life, the true instigator of which was Alexander’s Royal Page Hermolaus (Plutarch, Alexander 55). It would seem Aristotle’s chilling quotation of Homer to Callisthenes early in his appointment proved prophetic: “The way you’re talking, my child, you won’t last long” (Diogenes Laertius, Philosophers 5.1.5).
Though no ancient source may be trusted to provide a verbatim recounting of dialogues presented at the time, the general tone that is reported should not be ignored. Therefore, it is notable that in his listing of grievances with the king, Hermolaus chiefly cites the unjust killings of Philotas, Parmenio, and Cleitus (Curtius, Alexander 8.7.5), and Alexander’s Persianizing policies (Curtius, Alexander 8.8.12). It is apparent that hostility regarding Alexander’s policy was not exclusive to Callisthenes’ Greek faction, where such objection would be typical; the Royal Pages, aristocrats in their own right and some themselves Macedonian, objected too (Carney 1981: 227). In agreement with this, “Macedonians, especially the older ones, approved Callisthenes’ objections” (Carney 1981: 226-7). However, such opposition remained private, and no other members of court are recorded to have expressed objections in 327 (Plutarch, Alexander 55).
Why silence? The answer is two-pronged. Hermolaus and the Royal Pages were given a public trial and public punishment “to demonstrate their guilt to the army and in order to involve the army” (Carney 1981: 231). The men’s forced complicity in these deaths would have doubtless encouraged their continued silence, and concurrently forced their implicit approval of Alexander and his policy. Additionally, while it is obvious that the primary purpose of Hermolaus’ prosecution was to warn against future plots on Alexander’s life, it is also true that his death provided an example of what would happen to those who opposed Persianization, and by extension any policy of Alexander’s at all. That “there should be no doubt of Alexander’s guilt” (Brown 1949: 247) is corroborated by Callisthenes’ imprisonment and execution, both of which occurred without a trial (Curtius, Alexander 8.6.23).
Perhaps Tarn’s claim that Alexander developed an “impatience with those who could not understand” (Tarn 1948: 55) is darkly applicable. Such action as a result of dissent was not exceptional, either: “That Alexander was cruel and vindictive cannot be denied” (Brown 1949: 248). Alexander was a man who did not curb his anger when his policies were opposed or obstructed. Along with Cleitus’ murder for his attack on Persianization (Plutarch, Alexander 50-51) and Philotas’ for his attack, in part, on deification (Curtius, Alexander 6.10.26), Callisthenes’ end serves as one of the most vivid examples of this trait. The executions of Hermolaus and Callisthenes, the latter being performed sans trial, are two undeniable instances of intimidation which simply exhibit variance in legality.
With Hermolaus’ citation of the deaths of Philotas and Parmenio, it becomes pertinent to examine a member of court who was involved in both the fall of Parmenio’s house and the orchestration of the proskynesis; a man who, incidentally, was also one of the first to receive a promotion to an especially high-powered Persian office as early as 330, not 324 as often cited (Collins 2001: 266-7). This recurring figure is Hephaestion.
To begin, his appointment to the office of court Chiliarch, a position independent from that of equestrian chiliarch, which he also held (Collins: 2001, 260), must be analyzed. “Chiliarch” is a term which translates to “commander of a thousand” — that is, one thousand Persian bodyguards (Collins 2001: 260) who came under Hepaestion’s standard when he was promoted to the office (Collins 2001: 268). Though no integration of Macedonians and Persians occurred then, it is pertinent to note that in 330 a Persian unit did serve under a prominent Macedonian commander. Considering later reactions to Persians in a mixed unit, it may not be excessive to conclude that this service under the Chiliarch caused, at least, Macedonian discomfort, as the analogous position in the Macedonian court was of importance (Reames 2010: 215).
Another point of significance, and indeed of contention, was the lack of a Macedonian equivalency to the office of the Chiliarch. The appointment of satraps, Macedonian and Persian alike, was received without significant comment likely because there existed a Greek equivalent — indeed, it was expected that Alexander leave governors to govern those areas he could not attend to, given the size of his empire and the breadth of his continuing campaign. The Chiliarchy, however, not only lacked a Greek equivalent; it also absorbed a number of pre-existing Greek offices, including those of the secretary and chancellor, and several others (Reames 2010: 205). To the army, such absorption by a Persian office was “just another step in transforming their familiar…system into an Oriental, hierarchical tyranny” (Reames 2010: 204). Despite the demotion of other officers a result of his appointment, Hephaestion appears to have received no backlash as a direct result of his office — note that the origins of his longtime rivalry with Craterus seem unrelated (Reames 2010: 187).
To justify this silence, some scholars might cite Macedonian entertainment of Alexander’s nepotism; others still might attempt to degrade the gravity of the position. It seems passé, however, to launch a defense of Hephaestion’s competence when all records demonstrate that such a defense would be unnecessary in the first place — and when Reames, indeed, has already done so at length (Reames 2010). Instead, a lack of source material is a more feasible explanation; though even without these sources, a common thread appears once more. On the topic of Philotas, Plutarch reports that Hephaestion, along with a cohort of fellow Companions who shared his conviction, served as instigators and chief executioners of the torture, which itself occurred under dubious circumstances (Plutarch, Alexander 49). In the matter of the proskynesis, Hephaestion is reported to have claimed after the event that he had secured Callisthenes’ compliance to perform the obeisance, thereby accusing Callisthenes of reneging (Plutarch, Alexander 55).
It is impossible to know the extent of Hephaestion’s involvement, but such an account means that his involvement cannot be disputed; nor can his willingness to renounce a previous alliance at the first sign of trouble. Overturning one incident then exposes more: Arrian provides a report of one Apollodorus consulting a seer, for he “chiefly feared…the King himself, and Hephaestion” (Arrian, Anabasis 7.8), while Plutarch’s account in the Life of Eumenes may imply that Eumenes even feared the man’s shade following his death (Reames-Zimmerman 2001: 121). This does not paint a charitable picture of Hephaestion Amyntoros. Though perhaps the effect was not initially intentional, Hephaestion’s appointment as court Chiliarch itself may have coerced the men to silence, simply as a result of past reputation paired with newfound authority; thus, it too was an act of intimidation. The “hierarchical tyranny” of which Reames speaks now crystallizes.
In 324, three years after the proskynesis debacle and six years into Hephaestion’s appointment, Alexander proposed to install ten thousand Persian troops to replace injured or incapable Macedonians (Diodorus, Library 17.109.1-3). Bosworth notes that there is “every reason to believe” that Alexander’s army was, at this time, drained almost entirely of Macedonians; as such, discharging more would elicit a very bad reception indeed (Bosworth 1980: 19). The mutiny at Opis erupted forthwith.
A superficial explanation for the incident could be that Alexander at last went too far: however, past actions such as the death of Callisthenes, newphew of Aristotle and a scholar with quite a following in his own right (Plutarch, Alexander 55) was far itself. Additionally, Macedonian soldiers had recently stomached the mass weddings at Susa, with many of them dissolving at the first opportunity following Alexander’s death (Green 1990: 3). One may argue that taking a Persian woman was an act of dominance, while fighting alongside a Persian in battle was a concession to tyranny. Still, Persian satraps such as Mithrenes served concurrently with Macedonian satraps (Arrian, Anabasis 3.16), and Hephaestion’s one thousand Persians served as bodyguards in their separate unit as well. Integration, albeit to a lesser extent, already occurred; therefore, it could not have been the prospect of integration alone which stung the army. Indeed, integration was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. The question then transforms: What made it so?
The period of time for which the men endured Persianizing policy was likely a factor: six years of repeated complicity in actions they found debasing or questionable wore patience thin. Additionally, six years of intimidation may have given way to quiet resentment; probable, as a mutiny is if anything an act of anger. Indeed, though “Macedonian fear and resentment” was “played upon” by Alexander to quash any who opposed his policy (Bosworth 1980: 2), even manipulation and fear-mongering could not override a concoction of his own making: the exhaustion and resentment of his men was an unintentional perfect storm that enabled them to finally overcome intimidation and mutiny against the policies they had so long reviled.
After issuing thirteen arrest-and-execute orders to staunch the mutiny, Alexander held a banquet to which he invited both Macedonians and Persians, so they could drink from the same cups and dine together as comrades (Arrian, Anabasis 7.8-11). Such an act was hardly an effort to “live in harmony” (Tarn 1948: 147), but instead an exasperated attempt at pacification. If the army was truly pacified, or instead only appearing so for their own protection, it is impossible to know. Indeed, Alexander went on to install about one thousand Persians to his guard despite the mutiny and the banquet both, a move which has been dubbed “a reminder of a threat” (Bosworth 1980: 9) — Alexander wanted his Macedonians to know that they were dispensable. The intimidation here is clear.
Finally, a brief note on the policy following Alexander’s death illustrates how deeply resentment truly ran. In the absence of his watchful eye, nearly all of Alexander's Persianization efforts were rescinded in his court and the courts of his Successors, with the exception of Seleucus, who, due to the size and location of his kingdom, had little choice but to integrate with the native population (Adams 2006: 16). He utilized the policy, as Alexander had, as the means to an end. Upon Hephaestion’s death, the office of the court Chiliarch was only held twice more in the courts of the Successors before it was dissolved swiftly and entirely (Collins 2001: 279), and the proskynesis attempt proved so unsavory that none of the Successors attempted to implement it at all (Jones 1964: 16). Not only do these instances illustrate that the dissolution of Persianization came heavily anticipated, but also that it could only be done away in the absence of Alexander’s living presence.
While it has long been acknowledged that Alexander’s Persianization policy in court and military caused a deep divide which ultimately culminated in the mutiny at Opis, the silence of the men at large until that point, and despite their grievances, is seldom examined. Through analysis of the proskynesis episode, the appointment of Hephaestion as court Chiliarch, and the circumstances of the mutiny itself, it has been concluded that Alexander employed intimidation to silence the men’s resentment of the policy, a strategy which staved off active mutiny for six years.
Despite the mutiny, Alexander continued to threaten his army with their disposability, a new form of familiar fear-mongering. In response, the near-immediate dissolution of Persianization efforts among the majority of the Alexander’s Successors illustrates their corresponding revulsion. Indeed, for a glimpse of the fear inspired by Alexander’s policy enforcement, one may return to Aristotle’s sentiment to Callisthenes, the threat of which resounded throughout the court for all of Alexander’s reign: to speak was to be silenced, and to be silent was to be safe.
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