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Myth and polis VIII: Alexander’s use of myth during his campaigns

We have already reached the eighth part of this series. In the last two contributions, I have paid extensive attention to the figure of Alexander the Great and we have looked at which mythological ancestors the Macedonian king had and how this descent can still be seen in material sources. In this last part on Alexander the Great, I think it is high time to look at how Alexander used this mythological lineage during his conquests. 

The use of mythological affiliations between two parties was already a regular part of the Greek diplomatic toolbox before the start of the Hellenistic period. This means that Alexander was very familiar with this phenomenon and could use it frequently during his military campaigns. Most examples of this date from the early years of his travels and come from Greeks or Asia Minor where Alexander seems to have followed a long tradition.

The best-known example comes from Thessaly where, shortly after the death of Philippus in 336 BC, Alexander sought to nip local resistance in the bud. The Greek poleis had hoped that the transition from Philip to Alexander would provide an opportunity to throw off the influence of Macedonia once and for all. However, this proved to be beyond Alexander, who needed the Thessalian horsemen for his conquests. He defeated the Thessalians on the field and invoked the following arguments to convince them of his kingship: he had inherited the title of archon (the leader of the Thessalian League) from his father and reminded them of ‘his relationship with them through his mother, who was of the race of the Aeacids (Just. 11.3.1)’. In another version of the story he uses his father’s link with Heracles (Diod. 17.4.1). It is clear that he used the kinship connection with the Thessalians to restore the alliance with them. The sources also show that the Greeks accepted his claim: after all, his lineage had been known for generations.

When Alexander arrived in Ilium – also known as Troy , he spared the local population from violence, according to Strabo, who took care of them ‘on the basis of a renewed kinship and because of his zeal for Homer. On the basis of this zeal and of his kinship through the Aeacids, who had been kings of the Molossi, of whom Andromache, Hector’s wife, as the story goes, was also queen, Alexander treated the Ilians kindly (Strabo 13.1.27).’ He is also said to have offered sacrifices to Priam on the altar of Zeus Hercius and a laurel wreath on the tomb of Achilles (Arr. 1.11.). It is clear from this, by the way, that Alexander did not see the Trojans as the ‘barbarians’ who appear in Homer’s story. On the contrary, the Trojans were worthy enough for the great Alexander to officially renew his mythological kinship and give them some advantages.

Many of the cities with which the Macedonian army came into contact had mythological links to Alexander because they were founded by settlers from Argos. Important examples are Aspendos in Pamphylia, Soli and Mallus in Cilicia. Looking at the two previous examples, we might expect that Alexander would invoke this link whenever he could. Yet when we look at these specific cases, it is quite clear that his only happened when it suited him. Both Soli and Mallus had paid tribute to the Persian kings in the past. The inhabitants of Soli were punished for this by Alexander in 334/3 BC with a Macedonian garrison and a fine of 200 talents, while the Mallians were spared because of their common descent from the Argives. It is unclear why one city was punished and not the other, but Ian Bosworth’s suggestion that Mallus’ geographical position – it was much further east than Soli – may have played a role is an interesting explanation.

Sometimes the roles were also reversed, with cities using a shared mythological link with Alexander to their own advantage. An example of this comes from Thebes. When a rumor circulated in Greece in 335 BC that the king had died, the city decided to revolt. However, as a member of the Corinthian League, which had been founded under Philip and united the ‘independent’ Greek poleis under the Macedonian hegemon, this rebellion violated the agreements made during the Common Peace of 391 BC. Alexander returned to Greece and led the discussion as hegemon of the league about the measures to be taken against Thebes. During this discussion, a Theban prisoner is said to have spoken, pleading for mercy on the basis that the city was traditionally seen as the birthplace of Herakles. This plea fell on deaf ears and it was decided to raze the city to the ground. Apparently, Herakles’ lineage was only useful if it was advantageous to Alexander. This is not surprising since this was already a conclusion we could draw from the examples of two poleis that came into contact.

The more Alexander moved eastwards, the less he relied on kinship ties. The next examples we get are from India. However, he had opportunities enough though: in Tyre in Lebanon Melcart was worshipped, a god who was equated with Herakles and in Egypt Alexander was named son of Zeus-Amon by the oracle in Siwa. However, there are no traces that he invoked his famous ancestors in any of these examples, probably because these figures were less and less known to the local population. Alexander therefore sought other means of connecting with the local population: for example, he increasingly combined Persian and Macedonian clothing and married daughters of the Persian kings Darius and Artaxerxes III, rather than invoking a distant shared connection through the Greek hero Perseus.

It is therefore extremely surprising that examples can be found from India. According to Arrian, there was again a kinship in the case of the city of Nysa, which would have been founded by Dionysus (Arr. 5.1.). If Alexander went beyond this city, he had thus achieved more than the god. This episode – and also other examples from India – are problematic, however, because they were viewed with skepticism in antiquity and there is no tradition to support these stories. Furthermore, it also seems highly unlikely that the Greek gods and heroes traditionally invoked were known in these areas. It is possible, of course, that in this case Alexander invented the myth of a foundation by Dionysus to enhance his own divine status. In that case he had deviated very far from the traditional customs surrounding kinship myth and the tradition as it existed among the Greek polis in and around the Mediterranean. However, it is clear that Alexander was very familiar with this tradition and he could easily adapt it to his own needs throughout his campaigns.

Further reading:

Lee E. Patterson, Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece, 2010.

Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great: A Reader, 2003.


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