Novels and movies perhaps fall too easily into the temptation of over-romanticizing Alexander the Great. In my view Alexander was both a tyrant and a hero of the ancient world. He was clearly a tyrant, since in India and Tyre the Macedonian army committed massacres that would be considered genocidal by modern standards. Paradoxically Alexander was also a hero of the ancient world, since he brought great wealth and authority to his followers. But of course that is only because ancient heroes were judged by their victories over others, not by saving children or by achievement in sports as in our modern times. Perhaps an attenuating factor when evaluating these atrocities is that Macedonians replicated the brutal war actions already present in the ancient world. In Persia there were Greek slaves working as artisans and these often had a body-part – such as a nose, hand or limb – cut from them in order to prevent their rebellion. The picture below shows a Greek influenced Persian gold cup from around 400 BC. This object is a very precious item. Since gold can be melted to form new objects (unlike marble sculptures), then few such artworks survive from antiquity. This beautiful cup inspires the feeling that perhaps the slave Greek artisan who made it lived an unhappy life and these artworks were the only joy he knew.
However, for all their brutality ancient men valued friendship and art in ways as strong as we do. In my view a defining moment in Alexander’s life was when Hephaestion passed away. Until then the conqueror had lived the life of an unbreakable hero, admired by the whole world. Who knows if perhaps at that moment Alexander felt vulnerable and mortal just like all men? Upon hearing of the deceasing of his best friend (or perhaps his lover, obviously we will never know), Alexander interrupts the celebrations organized for the return of his soldiers from India, orders the execution of the physician in charge (Alexander, the tyrant again…) and then mourns for two days next to Hephaestion’s corpse. When Alexander’s companions pull him away from the decaying body, the Macedonian king will begin the plans for what may have been the most expensive funeral rites in history. Alexander wishes to offer his friend a departure more dramatic and pompous than of any of the great kings. The pictures below show the busts of Alexander and Hephaestion.
Soon Hephaestion’s body is mummified and transported in a gilded coffin to Babylon. There Alexander requests a grand funeral pyre from architect Stasicrates, an endeavor which lasts six months. In an early spring dawn several thousands of Macedonian and other Hellenic soldiers who followed the expeditions of Alexander gather for the last goodbye. Decorated horses in golden clothes and painted war elephants face the silent men. In front rises a wooden palace some 60 meters tall and 200 square meters in area. The great building has seven floors, with each tier supported by gigantic wood columns carved with beautiful figures. Each detail sculpted as if to last forever and yet meant to burn in a single morning. The first story had 240 ships painted gold with red flags flowing in between. In the second one the columns resembled flaming torches surround by golden wreaths, serpents and eagles. Above mounted a hunting scene, towered by a battle of centaurs and mythological creatures. The fifth story was a golden jungle of lions, bulls and elephants, shining like planets in the dawning light. The next tier presented the arms of Macedon and Persian, while the seventh level bore sculptures of sirens with a hollow interior where women would chant in lament. On top of it all rose the sarcophagus of Hephaestion. Below I show artistic drawings of what Hephaestion’s funeral pyre might have looked like in a splendid morning plus the drawing of a decorated army elephant.
As the singers descended the stairs, still singing the funeral chants, the early sun was rising in the sky, when Alexander threw down his torch, followed by several of his men. It is easy to imagine the bonfire spreading through each step of the gigantic pyre, ascending upwards as a cataract of flames and smoke. The tower started to creak and as the heavy sculptures and columns would fall from high, eagles, lions, serpents, plunging in flames with a thudding noise. The heat, glow and sound reverberated in the distance until all became ash.
After the ceremony Alexander requests for the sacred flame of the temple of Babylon to be extinguished, an act reserved for the death of the great king himself. The funeral ceremony was followed by 15 days of celebration with a theater and music festival, besides a large arena where over 3000 athletes competed in sports and games. One must imagine the impact of such an event, since Hellene athletes of the time practiced sports almost naked. The audience must have seen ball games, wrestler and runners everywhere fighting for victory with their naked muscles. Below I show artistic images of athletic games and Dionysian music festivals.
Some estimate Hephaestion’s funeral to have costed the equivalent of 2.3 billion USD, similar as a Forbes billionaire burning its entire fortune to mourn a companion. Such was the emotion lived by Alexander and his companions in life. Of course, one may think that the pyramids of Egypt were more expensive tombs, however those were monuments meant to last forever and not merely a funeral rite. This funeral was extensively described by ancient historian Diodorus Siculus, but it goes unmentioned in several other ancient sources. Some modern historians, such as Robin Lane Fox, express some doubts about whether this funeral really happened or whether Diodorus was confused a crazy plan conceived by Alexander and that never really materialized. In my personal opinion I believe it is more likely that Diodorus was describing real events, although perhaps a bit exaggerated. After all Alexander was the wealthiest man of his age and often had no qualms about spending the money he pillaged during his invasions. One can even think that his expeditions to Afghanistan and Pakistan were merely the result of his wish to spend funds to gain more glory, since those were backward regions that his men really did not want to invade. Therefore why not believe that the Macedonian king would not have spent on a lavish funeral for a friend? More recently a gigantic tomb was discovered in Greece, which some people think could be the final resting place built for Hephaestion: