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Hephaestion (1)

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Hephaestion. Part of group from Alexandria, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Jona Lendering.
Hephaestion. Statue from Alexandria (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)
Hephaestion (c.357-324): Macedonian nobleman, closest friend and lover of king Alexander the Great. During the expedition against Persia, he served sometimes as a military commander, but he was probably a better organizer.

According to a document that is included in Arrian of Nicomedia's Indikê (quoted here), Hephaestion was born in the capital of ancient Macedonia, Pella. His father Amyntor must have been an important man, because his son was educated at the court of king Philip (360-336). The Greek name of Hephaestion's father suggests that he was one of the Greek mercenary leaders or intellectuals who came to Macedonia and received an honorable treatment. (The father of Alexander's admiral and friend Nearchus is another example.)

Related subjects
Alexander the Great
Artabazus
Craterus
Coenus
Nearchus
Perdiccas
Peucestas
Philotas
Porus
Aristotle's school at Mieza (modern Naoussa). Photo Jona Lendering.
Aristotle's school in Mieza. In the second century CE, the building was still shown to visitors.

When he was still young, Hephaestion met the crown prince Alexander. Although an explicit connection between Hephaestion and the famous Macedonian scientist and philosopher Aristotle of Stagira is not mentioned in our best sources, we may assume that Hephaestion, like Alexander, was educated by Aristotle, whose school at Mieza (below modern Naousa) was situated in one of the most beautiful and green parts of Macedonia. If we are to believe Diogenes Laertius, the author of an entertaining collection of Philosopher's lives, Aristotle published a collection of letters to Hephaestion, which suggests that the two wrote to each other during Alexander's Persian campaign. However, Diogenes is not always a reliable author.

Hephaestion is first mentioned at the very beginning of the histories of Alexander's Persian campaign, when the invaders reached Troy (May 334). He is never introduced as 'a friend' or 'a companion' of the king; he is simply mentioned, which suggests that the historians assumed that everybody knew Hephaestion's position as Alexander's lover. (We don't have to introduce Juliet once Romeo is on the stage.)

 
Hephaestion on the Alexander sarcophagus. Arkeoloji Müzesi, İstanbul (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins.
Hephaestion on the Alexander sarcophagus (Archaeoloigcal Museum, Istanbul)

At Troy, Alexander venerated the ancient heroes. It is said that he went to the tomb of his legendary ancestor Achilles and that Hephaestion sacrificed to Achilles' friend Patroclus. Again, this suggests that Hephaestion was Alexander's lover, because in the fourth century, it was widely believed that the two legendary heroes had been lovers. (Homer states that they used to spend the night separately - a remark that is only meaningful when it was already taken for granted that the two were lovers.)

If the parallel between Achilles and Patroclus on the one hand and Alexander and Hephaestion on the other hand was really perfect, Hephaestion was -like Patroclus- older than his lover. Since Alexander was born in the summer of 356, we may assume that his friend was born in, say, 357.

After the visit to Troy, Hephaestion disappears for some time from our sources. This suggests that he was with Alexander and did not occupy commands worth mentioning. It is only after the battle of Issus (November 333) that we reencounter Hephaestion in our sources, in a famous anecdote. After the Macedonian victory, queen Statira was captured. She went to Alexander and kneeled down in front of Hephaestion, thinking that he was the king. Alexander saved her face by saying 'Don't worry, mother. Everywhere, he is Alexander too'.

It is possible that Hephaestion is depicted on the Alexander sarcophagus (although some scholars think that the man represented is Antigonus Monophthalmus). If the identification is correct, Hephaestion fought on horseback during the battle of Issus.

 
Hephaestion
Hephaestion (Getty museum, Los Angeles; ©!!!)

Alexander was now twenty-three and Hephaestion may have been twenty-four or older. According to the Macedonian and Greek ideas about love and sexuality, the time for homosexual affairs was over. The young men had to marry. Hephaestion could no longer be Alexander's lover, and had to find a new role, especially since the king accepted a Persian mistress, Barsine. However, the friendship between the two men remained very close.

Hephaestion was sent on a diplomatic mission to Sidon, where he had to appoint a new king. He chose a man named Abdalonymus. This was not a very important task, but it should be noted that he had not had earlier assignments. During the next year, he commanded the navy of the Phoenician towns that had sided with the conquerors; this meant that he had to supply the main force. This was a more important job. (It should be noted that these assignments are not mentioned in our most important source, Arrian.)

During Alexander's stay in Egypt (first half 331), Hephaestion was approached by a friend of the Athenian politician Demosthenes, an enemy of the Macedonians. The envoy said that he hoped that Hephaestion would put in a good word for Demosthenes with Alexander. It is unclear whether Hephaestion was persuaded, or, if he was, what was the result.

On October 31, 331, the Macedonians and Persians fought a large battle at Gaugamela in northern Mesopotamia. Hephaestion was now one of the members of Alexander's bodyguard, the somatophylakes. (In fact, these seven men were not real bodyguards but adjutants.) During this bloody battle, he was wounded in an arm.

 
 
Again, Hephaestion disappears from our sources for some time, except for an undated assignment as guard and protector of Persian captives. He becomes 'visible' again in October 330, when several soldiers conspired against Alexander. Almost immediately, it became clear that the commander of the Companion cavalry (the best soldiers in the Macedonian army), Philotas, had known of the plans and had not reported his discovery.

At first, Alexander forgave Philotas, but the next day, the accusations were renewed by the phalanx commanders Craterus and Coenus, Philotas' brother-in-law. It is not known whether they had a secret agenda, but we may be suspicious, as we see two infantry commanders accusing the leading cavalry commander. During the night, Philotas was arrested.

As the army exercised capital jurisdiction in Macedonia, Alexander organized a trial. He accused Philotas and the court found him guilty of conspiracy. However, the precise nature of the conspiracy was unclear. Hephaestion, Craterus and Coenus declared that torture should be employed to force the truth out of Philotas. He confessed that he and his father had wanted to kill Alexander to become kings themselves. After this confession, the commander of the Companions was executed.

What to make of this story? No one doubts that the first conspiracy was a fact, but the existence of the conspiracy of Philotas and Parmenion is another matter. The confession of the tortured man can, of course, not be taken as proof. On the other hand, it is strange that Philotas did not report the first conspiracy. It is possible that he wanted to see what happened: if the soldiers' attempt failed, nothing was lost, if it were successful, the army would chose him as its commander and king. He had much to gain, but the fact that he had a motive does not mean that he really did what he was accused of. We will never known what really happened.

The consequences of the murder were clear. In the first place, the execution of Philotas made the murder of his father Armenian inevitable - and in fact, he was killed. In the second place, the Companion cavalry was placed under two men: a safety measure against too powerful officers. The new commanders were Clitus, a trusted senior officer, and Hephaestion, who was still inexperienced. 

The years 329, 328 and 327 saw fighting in Bactria and Sogdia, satrapies in the northeast of the Achaemenid empire. Since most of the fighting was done on horseback, we would expect the commander of the Companion cavalry to be prominent in our sources, but Hephaestion is conspicuously absent. The reason is that the unit of Hephaestion and Clitus was too large for the guerilla warfare in Sogdia. It was divided into smaller units, and Hephaestion commanded only one of them. (It should be noted that Alexander killed Clitus, which would have made Hephaestion the senior commander of the Companions, an assignment that was probably still above his powers.)

So, Alexander was skeptical about Hephaestion's capacities as commander, but this did not mean that his friend was out of favor. He is mentioned as the official who had to secure provisions during the winter, an important task. Moreover, Hephaestion acted as Alexander's best man when he married with the native princess Roxane (text). But Hephaestion rarely served as commander during a fight; when he commanded an army that was to see battle, he was always sharing the command with a more experienced officer (e.g., Clitus, Artabazus, Perdiccas).

 




Part two




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