The ancient sources on Alexander and Hephaestion
UPDATE: Episode III of the Achilles Gene podcast, which investigates the mystery of Alexander and Hephaestion, is now available! It features stories from their life and analysis from the world's leading expert on this topic. You can listen here.
Let's begin with Diodorus Siculus and his sprawling work, The Library of History, which purports to tell the history of a large part of the world (include Greece, Egypt, Persia, India and parts of Europe) from the Trojan War to the 1st century BCE.
We know very little about Diodorus, except that he was from Sicily and wrote during the 1st century BCE. This means that, of the five best surviving sources on Alexander's campaigns, Diodorus was closest to the historical time period of wrote about. But this doesn't necessarily make him the most reliable. The accuracy of Diodorus' account, which deals in some mythic events, has been debated by critics.
Regardless, how does Diodorus describe Alexander's companion Hephaestion? Is there anything special about his account compared to the others we've looked at?
As his account begins at Alexander's succession to the throne of Macedon, Diodorus does not provide us any insight into how Alexander and Hephaestion may have met. He also omits any reference to Hephaestion at Troy, merely stating that Alexander visited the tombs of the heroes and honored them.
The first mention of Hephaestion in this work comes after the Battle of Issus, when Alexander visits the captured Persian royal family. Here, Diodorus tells a similar version of the story told by Curtius and Arrian. Hephaestion, Diordorus tells us, was "the most valued of his friends", in addition to being taller and more handsome than Alexander. When Queen Sisygambis mistakenly bows before Hephaestion, Alexander tells her not to worry, "for actually he too is Alexander" (XVII, 37).
The next interesting mention comes much later, during the decisive Battle of Guagamela, when Diodorus tells us that Hephaestion was wounded by an enemy spear. He refers to Hephaestion as the commander of the king's bodyguards.
However, according to the footnote, this doesn't add up. It explains that, at the time of this battle, Hephaestion was not yet a member of Alexander's most elite group of advisers/bodyguards, known as the "Somatophylakes" (Note: According to Wikipedia, Hephaestion actually was a member in 331 BCE). In addition, this group, which normally consisted of seven men, apparently did not have a commander.
Finally, the most prominent discussion about Hephaestion in this account comes after his death. Diodorus reports that Alexander loved Hephaestion more than any of his friends. Once, when a companion had compared Hephaestion to Craterus, another of Alexander's closest friends, Alexander responded by explaining that Craterus was "king-loving" while Hephaestion was "Alexander-loving" (XVII, 114).
In other words, Hephaestion admired Alexander as a person, not merely a leader. This piece of evidence may not suggest a romantic relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion, but it does suggest a personal relationship beyond what was normal for a king and one of his commanders or subjects.
The way Hephaestion's interacted with Alexander's mother, Olympias, reinforces the strength of his relationship with the king. According to Diodorus, Olympias was jealous of Hephaestion's intimate relationship with Alexander and slandered him in letters to her son. Hephaestion responded with a letter of his own, which said:
"Stop quarreling with us and do not be angry or menacing. If you persist, we shall not be much disturbed. You know that Alexander means more to us than anything (XVIII, 114)."
Hephaestion could only get away with sending orders to the queen if he had Alexander's full trust and support.
Now, on to Aelian, a Roman author who lived in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
In Book 12, verse 7 of Aelian's Varia Historia, the author writes 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."
Interestingly, some translations of this passage are explicitly sexual/romantic, using the terms "erastes" and "eromenos", words associated with the ancient Greek practice of pederasty.
However other translations downplay this aspect, reading "Alexander crowned the tomb of Achilles, and Hephaestion that of Patroclus; signifying that he was as dear to Alexander as Patroclus was to Achilles." I'm not entirely sure what to make of this discrepancy between translations. That will require further investigation on my part.
By some interpretations, this passage in Varia Historia is one of the few sources of antiquity that directly links Alexander and Hephaestion as lovers. However, Aelian was not a historian but, rather, a philosopher. Varia Historia was a collection of anecdotes and scenes heavily influenced by Stoicism. Considering the nature of his works, Aelian's information about Alexander is generally regarded as less reliable than that of Arrian, Plutarch, and others.
Diogenes of Sinope
Diogenes of Sinope lived during the era of Alexander the Great (they both died in 323 BCE). He is considered a founder of Cynicism, which was a precursor to Stoicism. Diogenes is famous for having lived an exceedingly simple, if not destitute, life and for challenging many of the social conventions of Athens and elsewhere. Although none of his writings have survived, a set of letters probably written in the 1st century AD claim to quote his teachings.
According to Plutarch, Diogenes and Alexander actually met once while the king was in Corinth. When Alexander asked the sun-bathing philosopher what he desired, Diogenes allegedly said he merely wished for him to move out of the way and stop blocking his light. Alexander was impressed by the man's indifference to any outside authorities.
So what does Diogenes have to say about Hephaestion? There is only one line, in Letter 24, from a letter Diogenes allegedly sent to Alexander. In it, he accused the conqueror of being "ruled by Hephaestion's thighs". I discuss this briefly in a previous post.
Again, like with Aelian's work, we have a source that is not historical in nature, but moralistic and philosophical. Its authenticity is also highly dubious.
All it really tells us is that some people (or at least one person - the letter's author) who lived hundreds of years after Alexander's time believed Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers. Although certainly a memorable line, it is far from being a reliable clue as to the nature of Alexander and Hephaestion's relationship.
For the time being, that concludes my summary of the written sources on Hephaestion and Alexander's relationship. I will explore whether some artistic sources may provide more insight. Also, if you know of anything relevant that I may have omitted, please leave a comment below the article.
Next, I'll be posting a consolidation of the posts about Alexander and Hephaestion so all of the info. is in one place. Then I'll post my own analysis of it all.