Did Alexander the Great really idolize the mythic Greek hero Achilles?
Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox, whose biography of Alexander was the primary inspiration behind Oliver Stone's film Alexander, certainly believes he did. Fox has long maintained that Alexander the Great cultivated the persona of a "new Achilles", a successor to the greatest hero of the Trojan War. Fox is not alone in his view. Many other scholars agree with him that the myth of Achilles played an important role both in Alexander's public persona and his personal motivation.
There is a romantic quality in the idea that a dynamic historical figure like Alexander the Great was inspired by the myth of Achilles. For that reason, it has become quite popular over the years. But that doesn't mean it's historically accurate. For various reasons, this interpretation of Alexander the Great's personality has come under considerable scrutiny.
Before getting too deep into the controversy, let's review the evidence suggesting Alexander was especially interested in the myth of Achilles.
One of the most important pieces of evidence has to do with Alexander the Great's beliefs about his lineage. The Macedonians of the 4th century believed that the heroes of Greek myth were mortal men who had actually lived and died in the distant past. Many of the royal families of the Aegean world traced their beginnings back to these heroes. Alexander's mother, Olympias, was a noblewoman of Epirus, a territory under Macedonian influence. Her family claimed to be descended from Molossus, the alleged son of Pyrrhus and grandson of Achilles. In other words, Alexander was taught that the blood of Achilles ran through his veins.
According to the Greek historian Plutarch (46 AD - 120 AD), this familial connection to Achilles was hardly downplayed during Alexander's childhood (Life of Alexander, 2 & 5). Alexander's parents, Philip and Olympias, rewarded their son's early caretakers for reinforcing the belief that he was descended from Achilles. One of them, Lysimachus, ingratiated himself to the royal family by nicknaming Alexander "Achilles", King Philip "Peleus" (Achilles' father), and himself "Pheonix" (Achilles' childhood tutor). According to Arrian, another Greek historian from the same time period as Plutarch, this childhood conditioning stuck with Alexander throughout his life (The Campaigns of Alexander, 7.14).
Although a variety of ancient sources reference Alexander's affiliation with Achilles, Plutarch and Arrian emphasize this the connection most emphatically. Arrian, generally regarded as the best ancient source on Alexander's life, states that Alexander had an enduring desire to imitate Achilles and considered the hero to be his greatest rival. He also compares the intensity of Alexander's love for his friend Hephaestion to that of Achilles for Patroclus (7.14 & 7.17).
Meanwhile, Plutarch writes that Alexander showed a special affection for the memory of Achilles when he visited the Trojan ruins at the start of his Persian Campaign. When asked by a priest if he'd like to see the Trojan prince Paris' harp, Alexander scoffed, replying "I would far rather see the lyre of Achilles, which he used to sing the glories of brave men" (Life of Alexander, 15). Plutarch also mentions Alexander's deep attachment to the Iliad, a story which revolves around the actions of Achilles. The Macedonian king kept a special copy, annotated by Aristotle, underneath his pillow wherever he slept (Life of Alexander, 8).
Other ancient historians also mention Alexander's emulation of Achilles. The Roman historian Curtius writes that Alexander reveled in punishing his enemy Betis in the same manner Achilles had punished Hector - by fastening his body to the back of his chariot and dragging it across the rocky plains (The History of Alexander, 4.6.29). Curtius also reports that Alexander, while in Bactria, used the example of Achilles' relationship with the Trojan captive Briseis to justify his own marriage to Roxane, a foreigner (8.4.26).
Diodorus, a Greek who lived in the first century AD, wrote that Alexander publicly referenced Achilles' legendary confrontation with the river god Scamander. After nearly drowning in the Indus River, Alexander remarked that "he, like Achilles, had done battle with the river" (Library of History, 17.27).
According to another Roman historian, Aelian, Alexander was imitating Homer's Achilles when he cut his hair to pay homage to the heroes of the Trojan War (Varias Historia, Book 7.8, 9.38, & 12.7). The images of Achilles that Alexander would have seen growing up in Macedon showed the hero as clean-shaven, a rarity among male warriors of that time (Andrew Stewart, Faces of Power, Fig. 34). Aelian also mentions Alexander's interest in the lyre of Achilles (9.38) and the symbolism behind Alexander and Hephaestion's relationship: "Note that Alexander laid a wreath on Achilles' tomb and Hephaestion on Patroclus', hinting that he was the object of Alexander's love, as Patroclus was of Achilles" (Book 12.7).
In addition to these written accounts, a number of ancient images also connect Alexander to Achilles (Borza & Palagia, "The Chronology of the Macedonian Royal Tombs at Vergina"; Fig. 19, 20a, & 20b). One pair of Roman medallions (seen below) dated to the fourth century AD depict Alexander wearing the armor of Achilles on one side and his mother Olympias posing as the goddess Thetis (Achilles' mother) on the other.
There is no doubt that Alexander was linked to Achilles in the ancient world. The question is when did this tradition begin. Was it during Alexander the Great's lifetime or sometime afterwards?
Some believe that the uncanny parallels between the lives of the (mythic) Achilles and Alexander led the later Greek and Roman historians to exaggerate Alexander's interest in the hero. Regardless of where one stands on this theory, one must admit that the similarities are striking.
Both Achilles and Alexander were princes, raised under the care of the world's finest tutors. According to myth, Achilles was trained in a diverse range of fields including medicine and survival by Chiron, an especially wise centaur who taught the most famous Greek heroes. Alexander also received something of a liberal arts education. His father, King Philip, was able to secure the services of the philosopher Aristotle, the protege of Plato now widely revered as a founder of modern political and scientific thought. Aristotle probably imbued the teenage Alexander with a deeper understanding of the Homeric stories he had known since his childhood.
From the beginning, both Achilles and Alexander showed an uncommon affinity, if not an all-out lust, for combat. While still only young men, they became prolific conquerors who led Greek armies on campaigns against powerful eastern civilizations.
The eerie similarity seen in the early lives of Achilles and Alexander is only intensified by the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Both men died young, shortly after the death of their closest companions, Patroclus (companion to Achilles) and Hephaestion (companion to Alexander). Even the way Alexander mourned Hephaestion seems modeled on Homer's account of Achilles' reaction to the death of Patroclus. Like Achilles, Alexander insisted on holding his friend's body for hours on end, refusing to consume food or drink. For Hephaestion's funeral, Alexander constructed an elaborate pyre and cut his hair short (Arrian 7.14). If these accounts are accurate, it appears Alexander fell back on the example of Achilles during the darkest moments of his life.
Does all of this necessarily mean that Alexander idolized or emulated Achilles?
As mentioned earlier, some notable historians believe it certainly does. Robin Lane Fox views the Homeric account of Achilles as the key window into Alexander's mysterious personality. Fox writes that this myth is "...the link which spans the figures and stories of Alexander's youth" and that it is "the most direct clue to his mind" (Alexander the Great, pg. 59). Fox goes on to explain that "It is through Homer that Alexander still comes to life" and that Alexander did not read Homer as a scholar, but "more in the spirit of a marcher baron living out the ballads which mirrored his own home world" (pg. 66-67).
Others, however, are skeptical of Fox's analysis of Alexander. They highlight the many problems in relying too heavily on the works of Plutarch, Arrian, Diodorus, Curtius, Aelian and other historians of antiquity. All of these works were composed centuries after Alexander's death. Although these accounts were, to varying degrees, based on first-hand accounts of Alexander's life (which are now lost), it is unclear how much was changed or added in the intervening years.
Furthermore, it is certainly possible, even likely, that these Greek and Roman historians recognized the broad biographical similarities between Alexander and Achilles and used them as a kind of literary theme, a convenient way to make sense of Alexander's personality.
And even if the direct comparisons between Alexander and Achilles originated during Alexander's lifetime, they may have been propagated by members of Alexander's royal court who were eager to flatter him, rather than Alexander himself.
These objections weaken the case that Alexander the Great idolized Achilles and derived motivation from his myth. It causes one to wonder whether Alexander's supposed obsession with Achilles was exaggerated, if not entirely invented, sometime after his death in 323 BCE.
On the other hand, if one is prepared to throw out the claims of the best surviving sources on Alexander's life, one must also remember how much information has been lost throughout the ages.
Considering the prevalence of post-Classical representations of Alexander as a "new Achilles", it is possible that this association was even more pronounced during Alexander's reign than Arrian and others indicate. Eugene Borza, a leading scholar of ancient Macedon, has floated the possibility that the various Roman and Egyptian artifacts which represent Alexander as a successor to Achilles may have been inspired by now-lost artwork and events from Alexander's lifetime.
Where does this leave us? The surviving literary sources on Alexander's life have been analyzed ad nauseam. When it comes to this issue of Alexander and Achilles, scholars appear to have reached a stalemate. Some take the leap of believing Arrian and the other ancient historians, while others are hesitant.
Is there anything that could tip the scales of this debate? Does any alternative evidence exist from Alexander's lifetime that could provide clarity as to what he believed and how others viewed him? Possibly.
The first piece of evidence comes from a speech made by the great Athenian orator Demosthenes, a contemporary critic of Alexander and his father Philip. Demosthenes referred to Alexander as a "Margites", a caricature of Achilles from a lost poem attributed to Homer. Some modern historians believe that this allegation would only have made sense to Demosthenes' Athenian audience if they were aware of Alexander's desire to emulate Achilles. However, this assumption, along with the precise meaning of the term "Margites", have been disputed. Such an obscure reference may indeed be a clue, but it is hardly definitive enough to rest one's case on.
A more interesting clue comes from the ruins of Vergina, home of the Royal Tombs of ancient Macedon. In 2015, the findings of a forensic study conducted on the human remains in the Royal Tombs was published in a prominent scientific journal. The scientists found that damage to the knee bones of the male skeleton in Tomb I is consistent with the leg wound King Philip II (Alexander's father) suffered in battle in 339 BCE, three years before his assassination. This finding contradicts the commonly-held view that Philip was buried in Tomb II and Arrhidaeus, Alexander's half-brother, was buried in Tomb I.
Ok, so why is this relevant?
Because this apparent breakthrough increases the likelihood that the ivory and gold-encrusted shield found alongside the skeleton in Tomb II (pictured below) once belonged to Alexander himself. After Alexander died in Babylon, Arrhidaeus inherited his royal belongings, which may have included his shield. And even if Arrhidaeus' shield is not the same shield Alexander carried, it may well be a replica, as the members of Alexander's royal court were known to reproduce elements of his elaborate personal style.
Although the shield has suffered significant damage over more than two millenia, enough of it remains to identify a carving of a Greek warrior standing over an Amazonian. The most famous scene of this kind in Greek art was of Achilles standing over the Amazonian Queen Penthesilia, after he defeated her during the Trojan War. If Tomb II at Vergina does indeed hold the remains of Alexander's half-brother (as the latest scientific evidence indicates), its accompanying shield, or one very similar to it, may have been the one carried by Alexander the Great before his death. Either possibility increases the odds that the later association made between Alexander and Achilles originated during Alexander's lifetime.
The question of whether Alexander the Great idolized Achilles has not been adequately answered. There are compelling points to consider on both sides.
One can imagine that Alexander would have been well-served to cultivate an Achillean persona. Such a persona could have helped Alexander clarify his priorities (glory, honor, etc.) and unite his diverse Greek army.
However, skeptics are right to point out that the evidence linking Alexander to Achilles is hardly airtight. Just because many people wish to imagine Alexander the Great as a kind of "new Achilles" does not make it true. One can only hope that new research and discoveries can eventually shed more light on this aspect of Alexander's personality.
To close, I'd like to leave you with a quote I found especially thought-provoking. It comes from Andrew Stewart, a professor of Ancient Mediterranean Art and Archaeology at Berkeley. Stewart accepts the premise that the myth of Achilles offers a convenient shortcut to explaining Alexander's personality. However, when one considers the influence Homer's epics still wielded in 4th century Macedon, this shortcut may bring us closer to the mind of Alexander than any other known route.
"His (Alexander's) emulation of Achilles had become a topos, offering a prepackaged guide to his motivations and goals. There is nothing necessarily contrived or artificial about this: as texts, inscriptions, even the royal tombs at Vergina, readily demonstrate, Macedonia still defined itself through its relation to the heroic past" (Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics, pg. 81).
Thank you for reading. I would love to hear any feedback and/or criticism (as long as it's constructive). Just use the comment box below.