As Alexander the Great's best
friend, Hephaistion grew up with the prince, or at
least, they met when young and were about the same
age. That means Hephaistion was born c.356 BCE. (We
don't know if he was born in 356 exactly, though
some assume it. I think he was a year or so
older than Alexander.)
Supposedly he hailed from Pella, but this attribution
occurs in a list with others we know weren't from Pella
but acquired later land-grants there later, so his
family's origin is unclear.
He and Alexander went to school together, one of several boys who studied at Mieza under Aristotle (at right). Later, Aristotle wrote him letters, as did Xenokrates, head of Plato's school in Athens. So he might have been an intellectual, or liked people to think so. He turned out to be better at logistics and diplomacy than military combat, and Curtius calls him the king's counselor. All that suggests more brain than brawn.
If raised and educated with the
prince, his father may have been one of the king's Hetairoi,
or Companions, so he was born to a wealthy family.
If his father was a Companion, he probably numbered
among the king's Pages as a teenager. If called "Pages" in most modern texts, the
Greek term translates as "King's Boys," with duties more akin to
squires. We don't know
his mother's name, or the names of any other relatives,
although his grandfather may
have been named Demetrios (IG II² 405).
About the only other detail of
interest is his father's name. Amyntor and Amyntas
are dialectical variations, like Stephen and Stefano or
Mary and Maria. AmynTAS was the usual
version in Macedonia, but AmynTOR in
Greece. Furthermore, the name Hephaistion is
virtually unknown in Macedonia--our Hephaistion is the
only one identified to date--and worship of the god
Hephaistos is equally unusual there. Yet like
Amyntor, the name Hephaistion is found in
Greece. What this means is unclear, but the family
may well have had Greek ties of some sort.
A recently published 4th century
curse tablet from Pydna names an "Amyntor" among the
associates of the one directly cursed (Curbera and
Jordan, GRBS 43, 2002/3). It is tempting
to identify that Amyntor as the father of Hephaistion,
but such remains pure speculation. At most, we can
say Pydna was a Greek foundation that had been under
Macedonian control, off and on, since the reign of
Alexandros I. It is possible (possible only) that
Hephaistion was the son of a leader of the Macedonian
faction in the city, given special honor for support
during Philip's reconquest of the town in 357 (the year
before Alexander was born)...or alternatively, the son
of someone from the opposing faction, taken as a hostage
for his father's good behavior (as many of the "King's
LIFE & CAREER:
The first time we hear anything of Hephaistion in the histories of Alexander, it's at Troy, where the army made landfall in Asia. There, Alexander did a lot of symbolic things, among them sacrificing at the tomb of Achilles. Hephaistion supposedly sacrificed at the tomb of Patroklos, Achilles's best friend, a nice allusion to their own friendship. Alexander liked those sorts of dramatic gestures, and the Macedonians (not just Alexander) took the Iliad very seriously. It wasn't just a story. They lived it.
After that, Alexander marched
off to meet the regional Persian army at the Battle of
the Granikos. He won, but almost got himself
killed in the process. It wasn't Hephaistion who
saved him but Kleitos, baby brother to his childhood
nurse. In fact, we don't hear of Hephaistion again
until the second big battle at Issos. There's a
peculiar story in Plutarch that, on the morning before
battle, Alexander's officers had come to his tent to
receive last minute orders when Hephaistion showed up,
saying, "Health to you," instead of "Joy to you."
That's like saying, "Good bye" or "Good evening" instead
of "Hello" or "Good morning." The officers
interpreted it as a bad omen, fearing that Alexander
would die. But Alexander re-interpreted it, saying
that wishing him health meant he'd live. Quick
thinking. But the odd thing about the story is
that Hephaistion acted embarrassed rather than alarmed
by his slip of the tongue. My own take is that he
was leaving the king's tent, not arriving. (Get your minds out of the
gutter. Maybe Alexander needed his best
friend's company the night before the Big
Battle. I doubt he slept much.)
Where Hephaistion fought at Issos, the histories don't say, but the Alexander Sarcophagus (Istanbul Museum) shows him on horseback. We hear about him again after the battle. Alexander won (of course), and Darius fled the field, leaving behind his treasury, personal effects, and his family. The Greeks thought this meant Darius hadn't taken Alexander seriously, but Persians kings typically traveled with their entire court. So Alexander wound up with all Darius' stuff -- a fancy tent, big bath, huge bed, lots of gold ... and his wife, daughters, and mother. Well, the ladies expected what usually happens to captured women in war: rape. But Alexander sent to them, saying they wouldn't be harmed. They didn't believe it. So he went to tell them in person, Hephaistion with him. As Hephaistion was the taller and more impressive-looking, the queen mother thought he was Alexander and bowed to him. When a eunuch warned her of her mistake, she tried to bow again to the right guy, but Alexander stopped her, saying, "Never mind, mother. He's Alexander, too." Pretty typical of Alexander's chivalry, when in the mood. Although Arrian doesn't quite believe it, the story was popular in antiquity (and with Renaissance painters, as so LeBrun above). Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't. Even if it didn't, it must have seemed likely or people wouldn't have kept repeating it. In any case, it's while telling this story that Curtius writes the longest description of Hephaistion found in any of the Alexander histories:
Hephaistion was by far the dearest of all the king's friends, educated together with him and the counselor of all his secrets. No one had more freedom to admonish Alexander, but he used it in such a way that it seemed granted by the king rather than taken by himself. And although he was around the king's same age, he was of a larger physique. (book 3, chapter 12, trans. mine)After Issos, Hephaistion got his first big command. Alexander decided not to go after Darius, but to continue marching down the coast to cripple the Persian fleet by conquering all their ports. He couldn't leave the fleet behind him, or it might have cut off his own supply lines. One of those ports was at Sidon, and after taking control of the city, Alexander told Hephaistion to find the town a new king. Hephaistion asked his hosts for help, and eventually named Abdalonymos from the old royal line. Supposedly, the guy was a poor farmer as honest as the day is long. The tale of Hephaistion-and-hosts discovering him out weeding his garden is a little too precious, but choosing him proved to be wise, as Abdalonymos reigned a while. The famous Alexander Sarcophagus is really Abdalonymos's sarcophagus, so it's no surprise if Hephaistion was honored by being placed at the middle of the frieze along one side. (The picture on this site's index page is Hephaistion from that sarcophagus.)
After Sidon, Hephaistion was put in charge of Alexander's fleet (which were recommissioned ships from the Persian fleet) for the seige of Tyre. And later, as the army marched south through harsh terrain towards Egypt, this same fleet sailed along the coast dropping supply magazines. As Napoleon said, an army marches on its stomach and Hephaistion couldn't afford to botch it or he might starve the army, so it was an important command. In Egypt, Alexander was welcomed with open arms. At some point, Hephaistion was sent off on an errand of some kind, perhaps to secure more supplies. He was also visited by a friend of Demosthenes of Athens, who asked him to put in a good word for Demosthenes with the king. One of Alexander's father's arch-rivals, Demosthenes now feared Alexander's success. We're not told if Hephaistion did speak for Demosthenes, but he must've been considered influential for Demosthenes to request his help. It's also in Egypt that Alexander made his famous hike out through what's today the Libyan desert to the oasis of Siwah in order to visit the oracle of Ammon and ask some questions. He took a relatively small group with him, one of whom was Ptolemy, later founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. It's likely that Hephaistion was another. According to the histories, Alexander kept Ammon's answers to himself but I have to wonder if he did confide in Hephaistion, "the counselor of all his secrets."
Hephaistion then disappears from our record until the battle of Gaugamela (or Arbela if you prefer). This was the last of the three big battles with the Persians, and once again, Darius turned around and ran when he saw Alexander headed for him. Before that battle, Hephaistion may have been in charge of taking some troops to scout across the Tigris, but in the battle, he fought among the Hypaspists, apparently in the front line, and was wounded in the arm from a spear. This brings up an important point. While Hephaistion apparently wasn't much of a tactician or strategist, it shouldn't be assumed he couldn't fight. They're two different skills. Not all good fighters are good strategists, and not all great generals are good fighters.
Following this battle, we once
again hear nothing of him until Alexander reached
Baktria, chasing down Bessus, the man who'd killed
Darius and claimed the title of Great King. By
this point, Alexander was styling himself Great King and
didn't like the competition, though he also claimed to be avenging
Darius' murder. In
Baktria, Hephaistion received more supply assignments,
until being promoted to command of half the Companion
Cavalry. Among the plum assignments in the
army, the position was open only because of the death of
its former commander: Philotas, son of Parmenion.
The fall of Philotas came as the result of a conspiracy
against Alexander's life. Some (Badian) have
doubted there was a conspiracy, and believe Alexander
made it all up in order to destroy the family of
Parmenion, the man who'd been Philip's best general,
good friend, and still had great power and prestige in
the Macedonian army.
While doubting the conspiracy itself is a bit too skeptical (it makes the Macedonian court sound more like the CIA), Philotas probably wasn't part of the conspiracy itself, even if accused of -- and killed for -- his supposed participation. Instead, Philotas was guilty of stupidity. One doesn't hear about a conspiracy against the king and not report it. Because Philotas was the eldest son of such a powerful man, Alexander knew he couldn't leave Parmenion alive, as Parmenion had part of the army behind him (at Ekbatana), sitting on his supply lines. So Alexander had Parmenion assassinated. A very practical decision, but not a pretty story, however you slice it.
How did Hephaistion fit into all
this? Before arresting Philotas, Alexander had
called a counsel of his closest advisers and
friends. The king's own inclination was to let
Philotas off the hook, but the rest of them --
especially Krateros -- talked him out of that.
Maybe they did believe Philotas in on the
conspiracy. People don't always think straight in
the midst of crisis, but once things were in motion, it
was too late to pull back. They decided Philotas
should be tortured to make him confess, and name others
involved. Hephaistion was among the three
torturers, along with Krateros and Koenos (Philotas'
What were the motivations of
these three? Well, Krateros had been Parmenion's
understudy at least since Gaugamela. Next to
Alexander himself, he was arguably the most talented
younger officer in the army, so Krateros was Philotas's
rival. Plutarch says that as far back as
Egypt, Krateros had been digging up dirt on Philotas; at
the time, Alexander had dismissed it. So it looks
as if Krateros had been gunning for Philotas and now
seized his chance. Remember,
the Macedonian court was highly competitive.
Nice guys finished last, if they survived at all.
As for the brother-in-law ... well, he didn't want to go
under with the ship. He had to separate himself
from Philotas's family, or risk his career and maybe his
Last, there's Hephaistion. He doesn't have an obvious political motive like Krateros's or Koenos's. That's made some think he went after Philotas for pure meanness or spite, or in order to get Philotas's command. Yet the latter is 20/20 hindsight; at the time, there was no reason for him to assume he would get the command. Krateros had a much better shot, and maybe that's why Alexander didn't give it to him: he suspected Krateros's motives. Yet Hephaistion did have a motive -- the most obvious one of all. Protective revenge. Even if he didn't believe Philotas involved in the conspiracy, by choosing not to report the plot, Philotas could have got Alexander killed. As Alexander's best friend, of course Hephaistion would be hopping mad. Still not something to admire or excuse, but comprehensible as more than innate meanness.
After Philotas was executed, Alexander divided command of the Companions between Kleitos (the same guy who saved him at Granikos) and Hephaistion. He didn't want any single officer to have that much power again, even his best friend. But he probably also did it because the troops knew and trusted Kleitos, while Hephaistion remained too green. In fact, Hephaistion never actually commanded his half of the Companions. Not long after, the whole unit was divided up again into several Hipparchies. Hephaistion got one, but his fellow Hipparchs were theoretically his equals.
Nonetheless, his star was
rising, even if not as a battle commander. He
excelled at logistics: getting army supplies, scouting
new terrain, and overseeing the construction of towns,
forts, and bridges. He also conducted
diplomacy. In fact, his first independent
assignment of any kind had been to appoint that new king
for Sidon, recounted above. Remember that Curtius
said he was good at finessing his status at court,
making it seem granted by Alexander instead of assumed
by him. In another place, Curtius called him
"charming." In short, he knew how to manage
people, or at least how to manage most people.
Apparently, it was Hephaistion who set up the private
supper party first introducing proskynesis (the Persian court bow)
to Macedonians in a (probable) attempt to unify court
procedure. Despite Kallisthenes's refusal to
perform the bow, the party was
mostly a success, but when they tried to spring proskynesis
on the larger court, it failed, and the idea was
was also used by Alexander in negotiation with Persian
aristocrats and Indian rajas.
The upshot of all this? With Philotas out of the way, Krateros began to get jealous of him. The two repeatedly crossed verbal swords, and once, in India, actually came to blows, each with his own supporters. That must have been one nasty brawl. Alexander was alerted and hurried to separate them, warning them that even though he loved them both, the next time he caught them fighting, he'd kill them, or at least the one who started it. They never fought again, never even said a word against each other. But when the king had first pulled them apart, he'd made a catty remark to Hephaistion right in public. He told him, "Without me, you're nothing." Sometimes his words are interpreted to mean that Hephaistion really was nothing, and only got ahead at court as Alexander's friend. Yet as we've seen, Hephaistion had proven quite successful at his logistical duties, so he wasn't nothing without Alexander.
Why, then, would Alexander say so? Well, Alexander was angry. His two top generals were acting like a pair of boys on the play yard, yelling the adult equivalent of, "Mine is bigger than yours." And when angry, especially at those we love best, we can say really awful things. We don't necessarily mean them. But, of course, sometimes we do mean them -- and I think this was a case of both at once.
perfectly well what Hephaistion was good at. He
repeatedly assigned him the same sorts of jobs.
But what Hephaistion did best -- logistics and diplomacy
-- wasn't well-regarded by his fellow officers. It
was combat skill that men admired in
antiquity. Ancient historians never had much to
say about logistics unless something went wrong. (Boy, then we hear about it!)
And if Alexander knew Hephaistion's strengths, he also
recognized that his friend was no combat
commander. Every time Hephaistion had to command
in battle, he was co-assigned with another officer,
apparently to help (Perdikkas, Demetrios,
Peithon, or Alexander himself).
That protected Hephaistion's honor, but also kept him
from making poor choices that might leave him looking a
fool (or dead). Hephaistion commands alone only
when unlikely to see combat. In fact, Hephaistion
himself may not have had a very high opinion of his own
talents; children (and adults) learn what they live, and
he was raised in a culture that admired warfare.
Alexander had many skills, both strategic and
logistical. So his culture's bias in favor of
combat over more peaceful pursuits perhaps reared its
head here. I think Alexander meant that without
his affection which led to recognition, Hephaistion's
talents would never have got him so high in the
army. After all, he was "just" a logistics
officer. Never mind that, after Parmenion's
murder, he was chief logistics officer.
Yet in the end, being chief logistics officer would net him the highest position in the empire after Alexander's own.
Following Hephaistion and Krateros's big fight, they were kept carefully apart. Eventually, Krateros would be sent back to Macedonia to take over as regent. It was the highest assignment he could receive that wasn't at Alexander's own side, and also wasn't in spitting distance of Hephaistion. Meanwhile, Hephaistion's assignments in India were more of the same: logistics and supply. For instance, while Alexander was getting himself shot at in Mallia, Hephaistion was sent south to make a base camp with Nearkhos, while Krateros was to meet them with non-combatants, spare troops, and elephants. Apparently, both men were still in the dog house. Hephaistion fortified a port, and then followed Alexander into the Gedrosian desert disaster while Krateros went north with the slower-moving troops. (Gedrosia wasn't as stupid a move as it's sometimes made out to be; had the supply plans worked, things would have been fine. Instead, there was a little problem called rebellion behind them in India that delayed the launch of Nearkhos's fleet.) Hephaistion was also in Karmania for that infamous Dionysian revel after they emerged from Gedrosia with less than three quarters of the people they'd gone in with. They weren't celebrating the losses; they were celebrating having survived at all. There, Alexander gave out a number of special awards, among them a gold crown for Hephaistion. No ancient historian says what the award was for specifically. Maybe just for putting up with Alexander in a peevish mood.
Hephaistion and Alexander are
both now in their final year of life, although neither
knew it. At this point, Hephaistion probably hit
the pinnacle of his career: Alexander named him
Chiliarch, or Grand Vizier (in Persian, hazarapatish).
This position at the Persian court had been vacant since
Darius had executed the infamous Bagoas, who'd killed
kings and made new ones with equal enthusiasm.
Alexander revived it for Hephaistion. Yet in
truth, it was revived for practical purposes and
Hephaistion was the ideal man to fill it. The
Chiliarch kept court affairs running smoothly, and who
better to do that than Hephaistion? It was an
administrative office. Unfortunately, he held it
only a few months before his death. Still, that
was long enough for him to make an enemy of Eumenes,
Alexander's chief secretary.
Part of Hephaistion's new job would have been deciding what correspondence and documents should be forwarded to the king. Before that, such decisions would have been Eumenes's, who'd answered directly to Alexander. Now Eumenes had to answer to Hephaistion. Such bureaucracy might be necessary, but few liked it, especially not those demoted to middle management who'd once stood higher in the scheme of things. Perhaps (maybe even probably) Hephaistion did do something to piss off Eumenes, but the larger political context shouldn't be ignored.
After Karmania, Alexander moved court to Susa in order to settle his Persian affairs before launching his next big campaign, which, of course, never happened. At Susa, he held a mass wedding for himself and his ranking Macedonian officers, who married aristocratic Persian brides. Once, this was believed to have been an attempt by Alexander to introduce a "Brotherhood of Mankind" (so, Tarn). That belief was a product of Nineteenth Century Romanticism, not cold reality. Alexander was tying his top officers to important families in Persia. His own bride was, of course, Darius' elder daughter, and to his best friend -- and new Chiliarch -- Alexander gave Darius's younger daughter, Drypetis. Curiously, Alexander's reason for the match wasn't to honor Hephaistion (or not that only), but to make his and Hephaistion's children cousins. Sweet. Probably genuine, as well. Alexander was sentimental that way.
The story winds to a tragic close soon after. From Susa, Alexander took his court-cum-army north to Ekbatana. And it was at Ekbatana that Hephaistion fell sick with a fever and died, probably in late October.
Was Hephaistion poisoned by his enemies? Did Alexander go crazy with grief after his friend's demise? Was there a plot against Alexander's own life, hatched by his chief officers?
Popular questions. The answers are no, no, and no.
Hephaistion was sick. He died. That happened. That happened a lot in antiquity, even to the rich and famous and apparently healthy. Diseases that we shrug off today could be fatal back then. No one knows exactly what he died of. Maybe typhoid, maybe malaria. There isn't enough (good) information about his illness even to guess. As for the poison theory (whose proponents point to a boiled chicken and some wine that Hephaistion reportedly ate on the morning of his demise), at a highly suspicious court, if Alexander didn't believe Hephaistion poisoned and subsequently turn out the dogs after the murderer of his closest friend, then I don't think we should assume it, either. Alexander did have the doctor hanged, but that was for malpractice, not fear of conspiracy and murder. Hephaistion died of a fever. Case closed.
So did Alexander go crazy with grief? No, he didn't. He reacted just like most people who lose a spouse, a very close friend, or a dear family member. The main difference is that he had enough money (and power) to have his wishes obeyed. If more people knew some of the odd (but perfectly normal under the circumstances) things grieving people do, they wouldn't think Alexander's actions so extreme. Grief of that sort is intense, and doesn't go away overnight, or even in a few weeks or few months. And although grief is something that happens to all of us, unless we're in a job or situation where we deal with grieving people regularly, we often don't recognize normal grieving behavior. Alexander's actions were, in fact, pretty normal, and he was starting to come out of his grief around the time of his own death, eight months later in Babylon ...
... which brings us to Alexander's death. Some consider the nearness in time of his death to Hephaistion's and once more, the old "It must've been poison!" theory pops up (in part fueled by ancient accusations of poison leveled against Antipatros's family). But to that, we can just repeat the refrain above:
Alexander was sick. Alexander died. That happened. That happened a lot in antiquity, even to the rich and famous and apparently healthy. There's been far more speculation about Alexander's final illness. The current reigning theory is typhoid with complications, although not everyone buys it, and malaria is still a strong favorite among dissenters. Did Alexander's grief over Hephaistion contribute to his death? Maybe so. That's not being sentimental. It's a recognized, medically documented fact that grieving people are at a higher risk for certain illnesses, including communicable illnesses such as typhoid (or malaria). Certainly, the stress of grief didn't help his health and he already suffered from several ill-healed wounds.
So while Alexander didn't die of
a broken heart (sorry, poets), I think it safe to
say that losing Hephaistion did indeed contribute to his
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WAS HE ALEXANDER'S LOVER?